Daniel's brow was a dark crest over laser blue eyes. He sat in the kitchen, cross-legged in a tent of light. In the taut quiet, one could almost hear the rumbling of Daniel's mind boring into the dense pages of Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body.
In the nearby living room, Daniel's wife, Lara, a woman with round cheeks and short dark hair, sat in a rocking chair, briskly flipping through glossy pages of dessert recipes. Their strawberry-blonde roommate, Sarah, reclined on the couch, engrossed in the latest Newsweek. An orange tabby revealed itself from behind a window curtain, gracefully jumping to the glowing wood floor.
Daniel was engaged in a sublime metacognitive act, as his mind gripped and kneaded the medical text—"synaptic cleft," "neurotransmitter," "dopaminic vesicles," and the like—twisting their lids as if they were tightly screwed pickle jars. Something about the "branch at the end of the axon" was just about to pop . . . when Daniel heard the Noise.
At first, it seemed a gentle hum. He momentarily diverted his attention from the word "axon," to verify that the Noise was indeed an innocuous monotone, his sapphire eyes wheeling from the page and locking in the top right corner of his face. He cocked his ear toward the refrigerator. He let himself feel the Noise.
It was nothing, he decided. He turned his eyes back to the diagrams of dendrites and receptors. Only now, he'd lost his thought. His mind searched for something about axons, but it had slipped away like a bar of soap in a bath. He calmed himself and breathed. He only had to re-focus. But then, there it was again: the Noise.
Daniel turned his head violently, realizing that It was not such an innocent little murmur after all. It wasn't unoffending or unobjectionable, as he'd at first allowed. And as he listened, It got louder, buzzing obnoxiously. A chemical irritant rose from his stomach into his heart, where it was pumped into all his extremities. Tension filled Daniel. He tried, perfunctorily, to resume reading, but he quickly thrust the book away. He could barely hear his own thoughts over the Noise. He bolted from his chair, into the living room.
"Can you hear that?!" he demanded of Lara and Sarah; both looked alarmed at Daniel's sudden appearance.
"What are you talking about?" Lara said.
"You can't hear that?!" Daniel said, positioning himself and gesturing with his left arm to indicate the kitchen area.
"What, Daniel?" Sarah asked, setting down her Newsweek.
"The refrigerator," Daniel said, looking back and forth between the living room and kitchen. "The refrigerator. It's—it's—it's making an incredibly loud noise."
Lara and Sarah both tilted their heads and listened to the quiet that gently hung about the house like a shawl.
"I don't hear anything," Lara said.
"Me either," said Sarah.
"It's—" Daniel started toward the kitchen, turned back, started again, turned back, the look on his face as if he knew he were in the process of being had, but was helpless to stop it. Meanwhile, the Noise's vibrations had escalated to a dangerous clangor. If the same Noise were emanating from his neighbor's house, Daniel would have had to consider bringing a nuisance suit.
"It's making a . . . " Daniel knew he was on his own. "Nevermind . . . I'll take care of it."
He got on his hands and knees and examined the black base of the fridge. Just as quickly he sprung up, and was angling to glimpse behind the chilly, black behemoth. The Noise was now a comprehensive cacophony, deep notes resonating in his diaphragm; shrill ones trilling in his ear drums. He opened the door and felt a cool gust. He stuck his ear into the glowing cornucopia. The Noise was more definite and brutal inside, like a jankety car engine clanging away under its rusty hood. Daniel reached past the gallons of milk and orange juice, waded through yogurt cups and soda cans, dug into the heaps of fruit and vegetables. In the back, there was a grill that seemed to be scowling at him as if it were looking for trouble. He tried to reach it, but knocked over a bottle of dressing.
"This is never going to work with all the food in here," he said to the orange tabby, who'd plopped herself down to watch. "But if I take it all out, the food might spoil." Daniel sighed and stood back from glowing ice box. He cast a long glance at the window, which revealed the cold night, the frosted patio, the snow-covered yard . . .
Soon, Daniel was marching back and forth from kitchen to frozen grass, bundles of groceries cradled in his arms. The Noise in his ears was as a thousand monkeys banging pots in an echo chamber. Lara and Sarah had gathered to watch, their faces showing amused mystification.
"You know, when I first moved in with you guys, this kind of thing used to freak me out," Sarah said. "But now I find it strangely endearing."
Lara lightly touched Sarah's shoulder.
"Did I ever tell you about our first date?" she asked and Sarah shook her head. "Daniel comes over to my dorm, and I'd been writing a paper. So when he gets there, I save my paper and I'm about to turn off my computer."
Daniel had stopped nearby to listen to the story, his blue eyes fixed on the floor.
"So Daniel was, like, 'Whoa there! Don't you back up your files?'."
Daniel interrupted: "I didn't say 'whoa there'; I'm not a ranch hand."
"Whatever, anyway," Lara said, "I didn't even know what it meant to back up my files. So Daniel spends the next 15 minutes saving all my files to disks, but the whole time I'm, like, 'dude, do you want to take me on a date; or do you want to do maintenance on my computer?!' I was pretty annoyed."
A sharp laugh escaped through Sarah's lips; Lara continued her story.
"Two days later, my computer crashed! But all my stuff was saved because of Daniel's strange, anal-retentive behavior," Lara said, turning to Daniel with a smile. "And that's when I knew that this was the man I was going to marry."
Sarah slowly shook her head, beholding the couple.
"Like I said, strangely endearing."
About the time Daniel had finished storing the contents of the refrigerator on a bed of snow, Sarah came into the kitchen and peered into the now empty refrigerator. She pursed her lips. Daniel came in through the sliding glass door.
"Daniel," she said, "do you know where the yogurt went?"
"Outside, next to the eggs, behind the creamers, next to the margarine," he said, waving his left hand toward the backyard.
Sarah put on some slippers and ventured out; Lara followed her to see what Daniel had done. Every item was orderly displayed: the brown bottles of Flat Tire Ale were sunken into the snow in neat rows next two bottles of wine, a chardonnay and a pinot grigio. The lettuce and the tomatoes and the carrots and the peppers were generally clustered, segregated one from another; nearby were the oranges and the apples and the grapes and the avocadoes. The sausage, cheese, and French bread were near the lunchmeat, hotdogs, buns, and condiments. It was like an Eskimo storefront.
Daniel came through with two vats of ice cream, vanilla and mint chocolate chip. Lara stopped him, took his arm, her round cheeks smiling. She kissed him on his stubbly cheek.
"You never cease to amaze me," she said.
Daniel's head twitched slightly, as he tried to be calm despite the grating, spectral wail coming from the fridge.
"Something has to be done about that Noise," he said solemnly.
Sarah, who was hunched over in the snow, selected a lemon yogurt.
"This is like the time you thought the tea kettle was a freight train coming into the house," she said.
"That kettle sounds exactly like a train whistle," Daniel said. "It's called the 'train whistle teapot.' Teapot is obviously a misnomer, but that's beside the point."
Sarah and Lara stood in the cold draft of the open door, nodding skeptically.
"Can you really not hear that?" Daniel looked around at the paintings, clocks, and decorative fixtures hanging from the walls. They seemed to be trembling in the pervasive din.
"I better get back to work!" he spoke loudly so as to be heard over the Noise.
"Okay, you do that," Lara said, again kissing him on the cheek. "I'm going to bed."
"Me too," Sarah said, scraping a spoonful of yogurt off the interior of the pink foil lid as she followed Lara upstairs.
The refrigerator's plastic shelves were stacked on a counter, and the white interior of the refrigerator glistened from Daniel's pre-surgery, preparatory cleaning. The scent of ammonia hung in the air. Daniel snapped off the yellow rubber gloves and set them to soak in a bucket of warm sudsy water. Down on his knees, he observed the grill from where the Noise issued forth. Up close, It was a grinding snarl.
Daniel ran his hand over the flush edges of the grill. He rose and went to the garage. When he returned, his hands were clad in workman's gloves, and he held an electric screw driver. Moments later, there was a sharp whirring; the screws swiveled out from their burrows and fell into Daniel's gloved right hand. Daniel sealed the metal bits in a zip-lock baggie, set them on the counter next to the shelves, and got back down on the floor.
It should have been obvious from the beginning, Daniel realized. Behind the grill was a fan, the blades loudly strumming the air. But the fan wasn't the Noise; it only threatened to cut off the fingers or nose of anyone who wanted to get near the Noise. This whole tact had been a waste.
Daniel stood in front of the fridge, hands hanging at his sides. The Noise was now vibrating every molecule in the house, permeating every pore. It was reverberating in the chambers of Daniel's heart. It was the primary property of an exasperating existence. Daniel turned on his heels, went again to the garage, and returned with a red dolly. He slipped the dolly's lip under the base of the refrigerator and was about to jack it up, when he stopped. How did he know the dolly could support the refrigerator's weight and that it wouldn't tilt over, fall, and crush him like a bug? He shuddered: he'd nearly nixed himself by acting on an uncalculated impulse. But his momentary cold sweat instantaneously evaporated as an idea flashed through him like lightning.
Five minutes on Google and Daniel was ecstatic: his refrigerator weighed approximately two hundred pounds; his dolly held up to six hundred. Daniel grinned and returned to the kitchen. He thought he sensed a note of panic in the Noise's disagreeable yammering.
With duct tape, Daniel affixed several layers of cloth to the refrigerator's black surface to prevent scratching. Several more strips of tape sealed the doors shut. Once more, Daniel donned the workman's gloves, as well as a long-sleeve shirt for his skin's protection. Then he plunged the dolly under the refrigerator, and with a deft move swept the old girl off her feet, gave her a smooth ride and turn, and then set her down just as gently as he'd lifted her off. Almost giddy, Daniel beat his hands together, set the dolly aside, and circled the refrigerator cautiously.
Heard from the fridge's backside, the Noise was different. No longer was it an alarming, relentless droning, but instead it had wearied into a cranky caterwauling. Daniel went to work with his electric screw driver. When the back panel fell away, and the mechanical innards were exposed, compassion washed over him.
Blankets of lint hung over the pipes and wiring like tragically forgotten, rotting rugs. Daniel set about clearing away the gray curtains of dust, respectfully, almost tenderly, disposing of their remains. From time to time, he quietly coughed. He probed the dark engine room with a flashlight and feather duster, restoring the distinction of plastic and metal. And once he had satisfied himself that he had set the stage, he allowed himself to behold the fan belt, the maker of the Noise.
One wouldn't make much of it. It was a black rubber unit, stretched across unassuming, spinning knobs. Daniel put his hand in its proximity, so he could perceive its whirring against his palm. Then, without flinching, he reached his free hand toward the wall's electrical socket and quickly pulled the plug. The fan halted with a grunt.
Daniel had to move quickly now, so the freezer's frosty secretions wouldn't melt. He reached into the guts of the fridge and stretched his hands out against the tension of the belt, dislodging it from the white knobs. He brought the dark length out into the air, and held it to the light, permitting himself a once-over of fascination, as if it were an exotic specimen. Quickly enough, he laid it aside and reached for his instruments. He clicked on his slender flashlight, and a beam of light penetrated the darkness, followed by a red straw, which protruded from a blue can of WD-40. When the light found its mark, Daniel double-tapped three times—ft-ft, ft-ft, ft-ft —hitting each knob twice. Mission accomplished, Daniel extracted his arms. He set down the lubricant and the flashlight, not pausing to cut the light. He took up the rubber belt, and quickly stretched it back over the knobs. He wiped his hands on a rag, then reinserted the plug into the wall. And then he listened.
He heard nothing; his heart fluttered.
Or not nothing, precisely; there was a pleasingly conspicuous omission of sound, a perceptible stealth. Peace began to spread its tranquil dominion throughout the realms of the house, and Daniel felt an ease in his soul.
The refrigerator was restored to its rightful position, the food re-stocked on its shelves. 3:30 a.m. and all was well. Daniel boiled water (in the microwave, not the kettle), and poured himself a mug of frothing chamomile tea. He wasn't tired, but rather felt quite clear headed from the exertion, and as the herbal aroma filled his nostrils, he settled into an arm chair. In his lap was Gray's Anatomy. He began flipping the pages, relocating the dendrite diagrams, his eyes falling on the words where he'd left off, " . . . the branch at the end of the axon . . . " His mind began to seep into the words on the page, taking meaning from the black letters like marrow from bones. He felt sure he was just about to understand something, something about the "branch at the end of the axon" when his head twitched, ever so slightly. His blue eyes slowly rose from the page. They fixed on the door that led to the basement, the lair of the washer, the dryer, and the furnace. He was sure he'd just heard a noise.