Barbara makes this clicking sound with her tongue. Or maybe less of a clicking than a clucking.
It’s how she announces displeasure with me. Or conveys her frustration at something stupid I'm doing. Sometimes, I haven’t necessarily done anything wrong. But it’s like she wants to remind me to reflect on how I might be failing her in a general sense, which is fine and warranted.
No one seems to notice, least of all Barbara, as if she makes it using muscles she can’t control and in a frequency that only I can hear.
She does make it sometimes when there are other people around -- like when, at Randy Marshall's funeral last March, I spit out some of the roast beef into a napkin (discreetly, I thought, but Barb would disagree) at the buffet line and then put the napkin into my pocket (because, I figured, it was better than searching around for the garbage). But on occasions like that, when I suddenly hear a Cluck! punctuate the silence, no one ever turns to ask her, like, “Whoa. Hey now. Did you just cluck at your man there, Barb?”
But that's fine. Because mostly it’s in moments where there’s just the two of us, in which I’ve let her down.
Like when I forget to bundle the cardboard boxes and the recycling drone ends up leaving them on the curb. We get home from work at the farm and they’re blowing around in the street in front of our house. Boxes from the grocery delivery service, from the uniform delivery service, from the pharmacy, and so on. All out there.
She rubs her eyes and breathes deeply. So I set down the car and go corral the boxes, ashamed, even though my legs are sore from working and the wind is howling and blowing the boxes around in erratic circles, and we're not supposed to technically be breathing the air after 6PM either. So I'm also trying to hold my breath running around, which is not very easy.
Or like when I wash the dishes, but leave one really grubby pot in the sink. I tell Barb to leave it because I’m soaking it. Of course, she knows that I just really don’t want to wash it at all, and I’m hoping that she will eventually. She stands up and:
And then before you know it, I tell her to sit her butt back down, and then I'm back at the sink with the powdered soap – which I hate, because it rips away at the raw skin on my hands, especially in winter – scrubbing at burnt meat.
Other times – and I'll admit that these are pretty tough – it’s when she’s reminded that my level of life ambition falls short of her expectations. Which, by the way, I think anyone would admit are pretty high, given our relatively humble educational and economic biographies.
We work long hours together at that construction farm. We do.
Sometimes I just want to rest at the end of a long day out there, watching the printers build the modules and pounding into the soil when they misfire. For example, the day that Frank Henderson got his hand cut clear off by a misfiring printer shooting Grade 6 Plastic into the frame of a module, I was roundly chastised for, as they put it "failing to summon the First Aid bot with adequate alacrity." Dipshits. I was holding Frank's arm with two hands and screaming for help.
Anyway, after I got cleaned up that night, I plugged into Freedom Prevails IV for a few rounds. And after a couple of hours of roaming and killing and covering myself in glory, I passed out in the command chair with the headset on, the red light blinking and the cooling fan still whirring.
To the best of my recollection, Barb was sitting there on our wide couch, knitting a sweater for Allen – not that he would appreciate it anyway – walking her needles patiently along a sleeve.
Well, I’m convinced that it’s the noise that brought me awake – even though I didn't actually hear it. It was more like I heard its echo. In the headset, smoke hanging low in our trench, Private McMillan was shouting at me, poking at my ribs with the butt of his rifle, his eyes all wide and wild. He had blood and dirt on his right cheek, and to his left Private Saunders was rocking back and forth blubbering, though that was no surprise. He had always been a candy-ass, and to put it one way, I had no more toleration for his lack of "alacrity" with respect to combat.
Private McMillan shouted, “Sir, are you okay? Thank God you came to. You were asle—”
And I took the headset off with the Private yammering. There was Barbara, counting brown stitches.
“I think I drifted off,” I said.
“Yeah you were snoring a little,” she said, not looking up. She sat in the small circle of white light cast by the lamp in her half glasses, there on the far end of the couch, and her concentration was so intense and I loved her so much in that moment. And hated letting us get caught in this miserable half-module with our son whiling away his natural life tethered to the machines. I wanted to tell her that I knew I had failed us, and that I hoped she forgave me: that at this point, all I hoped for from her was forgiveness, but that I still had love a plenty in my heart for her. Instead, I said:
“Did you just cluck at me to wake me up?”
“I don’t think so, hon.”
“Okay,” I said. Though I was pretty convinced.
She still didn’t look up, turning the sweater around in her lap, but she noticed I was still sitting there. “Get some more sleep. I’ll be in soon,” she said.
“You making that for Allen?” I asked her, though of course I knew she was.
“Yeah. Sometimes when we go over there to visit, he just looks so cold.” I don’t know if she actually thought that. He always seemed about the same to me. That sort of self-satisfied, close-lipped smile, legs and arms splayed directly out. And of course they climate-control the whole module, so it doesn't get any colder in there anyway.
The helmet always casts the same blue glow on the lower part of his face, and there's the same insistent whirring of the fan as in the gaming models. But Allen isn't coming out of there, whether Barb clucks at him or not. She was making that thing for a dead boy, if you want to know the whole of it.
Barb told me one time that she doesn’t realize she clucks at me.
She asked me to tell her what it sounded like. And for some reason I couldn’t reproduce it. I’d never tried before. So I just sputtered, stuck my tongue out, and sort of drooled a little and she went for the paper towels as I pinched at my tongue trying to get it into what I thought might be the right position. Another time, just about out of nowhere, she told me that – if she were clucking, and she wasn’t entirely sure that she was – it must not be a manner of scolding me. It must be more of a reflex. Which didn’t necessarily make me feel any better. Because it suggested that her frustration had – at some point in the last two decades – become automatic. That she didn’t even notice anymore when I disappointed her, or angered her.
The same way she didn’t notice when I played with her hair when we were both plugged into Golden Appalachian Sunset out for a VirtuWalk after dinner. She used to turn and smile at me in a kind of dreamy way and ask “will we love each other like this forever?” More and more, these days, we just walk through the neon-green grass watching the sun go down, burping as we go, till the swarms of fireflies come up. I'd play with her hair, not noticing. And she would let me play with it, also not noticing. Eventually we'd take our helmets off and crawl into bed.
No one told me, is the thing. Not when Barbara and I were wed in her parents’ backyard all those years ago, cooing at each other, the sweet smell of the synthetic cherry blossoms wafting pleasantly amid a sonic backdrop of Pachelbel.
The mysterious ordinariness after twenty years, that's what I'm saying. No one told me how everything else peeled away, until the husk of the ordinary was what remained. That she would be clucking her unconscious criticism at me. That we’d still be working on the module farm, all these years later, monitoring the finicky and obsolete machines as they printed the luxury units. That we’d get home sore and tired, and I’d have to chase cardboard in the street having seen a colleague get his arm shortened by a few feet.
I shouldn’t pretend that I don’t remember the turning point, though.
It was obviously the day that Allen told us that he didn’t want to live here anymore. He wanted to get out and join his friends inside the cloud or the dome or whatever they were calling it back then. I remember that I could see bits of dust floating up in the dining room as he stood in a shard of golden sunlight. It made him look powerful to stand there and I wanted to commend him on his stagecraft. He was a kid still, standing there in the dust. It was like he had rehearsed this whole thing to make us reflect upon where we went wrong. Trying to tell me to get ready to start the part of my life where I would be regretting things.
I think that was the first time, Barb standing silently next to me as Allen walked out to the curb with his one bag. I put my arm around her and said that we would make it. That we would figure it out somehow. That we'd have to.
Cluck. Was all she said then, meaning, I thought: I don't know.