Sometimes, voices catch on things—chairs, dressers, curtains. They last longer indoors than out. The sun wears at them and the wind blows them around until they break apart. Sentences become scattered words, and words by themselves aren’t useful.
I found an apple murex shell on the beach that picks up past voices. Some people hear the ocean when they listen to a shell, but I hear scraps of conversations I wasn’t a part of, the contexts lost on me. I carry it with me wherever I go so I always know what has been said.
It’s easiest when it’s quiet. Places like coffee shops with the constant noise of people, grinders, music, and milk frothers make it much harder to hear what the shell has to say. And because of the constant speaking, the sentences build up until they collapse on each other; words scatter under tables and fall down vents or blow out the door. Even a coffee shop in the middle of the night would be a cacophony of broken conversations and mismatched sentences—different accents and dialects and pitches.
Once, in a doctor’s office, I heard the frantic conversation between a daughter and a mother. I was the only one in the waiting room, and their words were coming from a potted philodendron in the corner, probably kicked into it by other patients. I guessed the conversation was a few days old, because it was starting to fade. Conversations fade when there’s noise, and in a waiting room, words won’t last a week.
“Why am I sick?” the daughter had said.
“Because you caught a bug.” The woman’s words crackled. They were losing the feminine pitch, shifting to something more neutral.
“I didn’t catch any…,” the girl said.
“Be quiet…bugs…The doctor…”
“…will see you soon and he will tell you why…”
“I don’t want to see…you’re sick…the doctor. I want to go…”
I found “home” in a spider plant on the other side of the room.
When I was younger, I didn’t like to use the shell. I thought of it as an invasion of privacy—that eavesdropping in person was acceptable, but listening later made me some kind of anachronistic voyeur. I’d use it in my classes sometimes during tests, hoping to get some vital information from previous classes. Once, I did, and I felt so guilty that I didn’t use it for a few months. It didn’t take long for me to miss it.
My favorite place to listen to the shell is at the beach where I found it. For some reason, the voices there are the loudest. When it rains, and no one else is there, I walk along the shore and listen. I followed one conversation between a man and a woman for about a mile once. I listened to their plans to move inland and raise Alpacas on a farm. I recognized the tone of the woman’s voice—that excited, innocent, beginning-of-a-relationship voice. She spoke to the man like he was bigger than the ocean. They sounded young, and their plans sounded young. I never found out why the sound-waves moved, stuck, ghost-like, in the trajectory of when they were made, but I suspect it had something to do with the pull of the moon.
I don’t use the kitchen in my house. I’ve set up a coffee maker in the living room that I fill with water from the bathroom sink. There’s a mini fridge under it where I keep beer, peanut butter, bread, and cans of tuna. I’ve also set up a small, low-watt microwave next to the coffee maker. Usually, I bring home carry-out or order pizza for dinner. Lunch, I’ll usually eat at a cafe.
When I do go into my kitchen, I never speak. I take off my shoes and walk so that my feet make no sound. It helps to be mindful of the arch in my steps—to lift, press slowly, and repeat. It’s been a long time, but if I listen closely, I can hear my son and his mother talking about one of his teachers at school—about the way she smiled at him when he turned in his essay on volcanoes. Their words come from a stack of newspapers on the table. Sometimes, I think about opening the back door—of playing the stereo and cleaning out the room. But now, I listen.