by Wilson Koewing
Alan Cunningham was one of those people who always wore headphones. Six months into the pandemic, he stopped listening to music. He was convinced that too much about the world the music was made in had changed, but he continued wearing headphones.
His wife, Alice, was none the wiser, and with silence in his headphones he learned she carried on conversations between herself and a version of him that she voiced. The conversations were mundane but skewed in Alice’s favor. What to order from Grubhub. Which Netflix show to watch that evening. Saying “Absolutely, babe!” to her daily Amazon purchases from their joint account.
Eventually, Alan tired of these conversations and listened to ambient sounds. He started with weather. Thunder. Rain. He discovered an affinity for snow. It sounded like nothing, but undeniably something. When weather dried up, he discovered animal sounds. Whales. Coyotes. Birds. Then communities. Rainforest. Mountains. Plains. Underwater environments. And finally, everyday sounds. A crackling fire. Footsteps on wet grass. A comb brushing hair. Eventually, he downloaded a program that allowed him to edit together random sounds he found.
Nine months into the pandemic, Alan returned to one of his true loves, cycling. Some days, he rode deep into the suburbs until he was alone by the interstate, the city skyline barely visible in the distance. Other days, he rode along the river into the city.
One afternoon, he pedaled into the abandoned amusement park on the edge of downtown. A security guard emerged from a tiny house.
“Can’t enter,” he said. “There’s no one in there.”
“That’s why I want to enter,” Alan replied.
“Can’t have you riding around in there.”
“Why?” Alan said. “There’s no one in there.”
“You start riding around, everyone wants to.”
“How many others have tried before me?”
“You’re the first.”
They stared at each other for a length of time.
“Fuck it,” the security guard said, lighting a smoke.
After that, each time Alan pedaled by, the security guard merely nodded.
At home, Alan witnessed a change in Alice. The first months of the pandemic had seemed like a vacation, but the isolation wore on her. Before, her job with a local nonprofit had kept her busy with panel discussions and networking happy hours. When she was relegated to Zoom, her sunny disposition darkened. The mundane conversations grew grim. “What if I never see Hanalei Bay again?” she’d weep, “or visit an amusement park?”
Feeling helpless, Alan retreated into his sounds—until one day an idea struck. For weeks, he rode to the amusement park every day. He climbed the stairs of an observation tower there that provided an all-encompassing view. He worked feverishly on his computer.
One sunny day, when Alice’s gloom weighed heavy, Alan invited her on a bike ride. Surprised, she agreed, and off they went. They pedaled into the amusement park and climbed the observation tower hand in hand.
“Alan, what is this?” He placed his headphones over her ears and pressed play on what he knew was a soundscape of how the amusement park would sound if it were open. Children screaming on roller coasters. The ding of carnival games. People splashing in a pool. When she realized what she was hearing, a smile grew on Alice’s face, and she began to spin, with her arms out free. A happiness swelled in Alan as he watched the light that had gone dormant in his wife’s eyes return like the bloom of exploding fireworks reflecting off her irises.