APPLAUSE • by William Bendix

He keeps singing the same line again and again: “Gone down in the river…” His voice is high pitched, instantly irritating. I know exactly who it is. The guy downstairs who studies music therapy. As if that’s a real course.

His voice echoes between the buildings. It’s late. The city, Vancouver, is uncommonly silent. No traffic, no sirens, not even the rattle of bottles from a late-night binner.

I’m trying to read in bed. A great book, a page-turner by Iain Banks. But the words are impossible to follow. The words no longer fit together. My brain can’t construct meaning from sentences. Because all I can hear is his goddamn voice.

“Gone down in the river…”

It sounds like a hippie song. A Bob Dylan song written in the heyday of folk. An intolerable song, in other words.

I jump out of bed, my book falling to the floor, and close the window. Actually I slam it shut, hoping the bang will signal to Mr. Music Therapy to quiet down.

He continues, however, seemingly indifferent. And his voice, although muffled slightly by the closed window, continues to penetrate my ear canal and attack my sensory epithelium. Officially, the singing has become a form of auditory molestation. Counseling services will be required if the singing continues. Even psychotropic drugs may become necessary. It’s that bad.

My neighbor can carry a tune, and probably has some basic musical talent. More talent than I have, at least. But not enough talent to warrant my attention at this time of night. I just want to sit in bed and read my book before I fall asleep.

“Gone down in the river…”

I open the window again and consider, for a moment, shouting. But I hesitate. No, that isn’t right. I don’t hesitate. Rather, I wimp out. Pathetic, yes. But keep in mind, I run into Mr. Music Therapy several times a week. Confrontation now, tonight, will make things awkward later on. We have the same approximate schedules and come home from work at about the same time. Often we see each other on the same bus. He’s always so cheerful, so smiley. One of those nice guys, unharmed by the world. Pure and clean. Can I really bring myself to shout at such a man? I want to call him evil things. My mind is filled with hostile expletives. Ugly words conveying beautiful hatred.

But this is Vancouver. You can’t shout in this city. Vancouver etiquette requires that we tolerate everyone. Even the most annoying eccentrics. Yes, we can riot when the Canucks lose a stupid hockey game, but otherwise we must repress all aggression and maintain vacuous Canadian smiles.

“Gone down in the river…”

The singing does not relent. It’s after 11 o’clock now. If he continues for another few minutes, I can perhaps make a noise complaint. But do I really want to be that guy, the intolerable neighbor who bitches about everything? When I was twenty, or twenty-five, getting drunk every night at university, I never imagined turning into an uptight nine-to-five hack. I never saw myself shuffling to bed each night at 10:30 to read a book of moderate literary merit before drifting to sleep, punctually at 11. How did I become so routine?

No, I will not complain. I will not be an uncompromising prick. Besides, nobody else is complaining. You’d think that with two apartment buildings, almost an arm’s reach from each other, someone would find it as irritating as I do. Maybe someone else does, but is suffering the same crisis of timid, Canadian identity. Maybe if I spoke up now, if I took the ultimate risk, maybe others in the neighborhood would join me in shouting down the music. But no, I remain silent. And everyone else does, as well. It is this kind of placidity that allows for the slow but inevitable deterioration of a free, democratic society.

And then I hear it. The crescendo. Louder and more obnoxious than any other part of the song. He draws out the final chorus with anguish. Fake, artistic anguish from a man who has never in his life known hurt or pain or disappointment. There is one final “Gone down in the river” and then, at last, silence. Real silence. Book-reading silence.

I move to the bed, relieved. But before I slip under the covers, someone from the neighboring building opens his window and begins to clap. It is a long, slow clap. And it echoes between the buildings. Clap… clap… clap… and then thud. The window slams shut.

Then there is laughter from other windows. It is loud laughter. Very loud. And its meaning is unmistakable.

Seized by a desire to break from the confines of Canadian mores, I decide to stick my head out the window and join the laughter. And perhaps I laugh louder than everyone else. I don’t know. But it feels good to laugh. It feels so goddamn good. Even later, under my covers, in the silent darkness of my bedroom, I am still laughing.

And the next night, there is no song.

William Bendix lives in Canada.

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Every Day Fiction