The Avery Estates Screamers
BY NICK STORY
There are ladders leaning against all the houses now. We used to take them down and toss them into the depleted quarry off Trabue Road. We thought this might discourage the screamers, but they just climbed trees or stood on folding chairs instead. They stood on our cars and made their noises. This used to be a nice neighborhood, too.
My family’s dedicated screamer (we all have at least one) is gaunt and sorrowful, about forty-five, I’d guess, with long thinning hair. Every day he wears the same soiled tweed jacket. He looks like the kind of guy who has written a lot of bad checks. He carries on for a few hours at our house—he moans, shrieks, gibbers, cries, and coughs—before moving to his next destination.
“What are you on about?” I used to yell out the window, back when I thought it would do some good. “Is this a religious thing?”
“Ah-AH-Ahhhhh,” he replied. And that, or some version of it, was all he ever said.
Jen takes pity on him, brings sandwiches and iced tea out to his ladder. I beg her not to feed him, but my wife has always been kind to a fault, and so half the time our screamer is screaming with a mouthful of roast beef or chicken parmesan, meat that I have paid for with the sweat of my brow.
There are screamers all over the neighborhood; the noise is constant. Sometimes, I daydream about a quieter past, and when I give voice to these reminiscences around Sylvia (my daughter, 13), she gives me hell.
“You’re living in a made-up past, Dad,” she says.
“It used to be different, I swear.”
“That’s just your nostalgia for being young. And anyway, I think their screaming is nice.”
“It’s cathartic. It’s better than keeping it all inside.”
“Where did you learn a word like cathartic?”
“Not from you.”
If I have a “backwards attitude,” as my daughter insists, I take comfort in knowing it’s only backwards by a couple years. Sylvia was eight when the first ladder went up at the Sherman’s place. I remember because everyone was talking about the first screamer. When the dead-eyed man with a big beard in an old green flannel started screaming at the nursery window in the Sherman’s house, the Sherman triplets cried, and the cops were called to drag him away. For a while the police would come and deal with them just like this, using harsh methods: Screamers dragged across sidewalks by their heels or hair or thrown up against the hoods of the police cars. There were nightstick beatings. It wasn’t uncommon for screamers to get shot, either by cops or by stand-your-ground homeowners. Someone on Oriole Lane is doing hard time now for abducting three screamers and drowning them in his rubber duck-shaped kiddie pool.
The initial violent reaction has given way to a sort of bemused acceptance, a general acknowledgment that the screamers aren’t going anywhere. My neighbor Sean puts it this way: “They’re annoying, sure, but they aren’t really hurting anyone. Buy earplugs. Listen to music. It’s easy enough to drown out the noise and get on with our lives.” Other neighbors—I can’t say who, as I’ve been sworn to secrecy—plan a great purge of the screamers and a restoration of suburban silence.
Do I think we should be purging entire groups of people? Of course not. But then again, I can see the argument that some of my neighbors make that, in a way, we are ourselves being purged, slowly, and by aural means.
Like mail carriers, most screamers have a daily route. An average screamer might scream at four or five houses a day, but some do double that, preferring shorter sessions. A screamer may come to a house for a short time, but there are so many screaming in any given neighborhood that, though faint and muted, some kind of scream can be heard all day long wherever you stand. I’ve created a Noise Mapping program on my computer and have determined where you can find the quietist locations in town throughout the course of a day, such as the Dungaree Waterfall in Cabot Metro Park and the patch of grass between St. Olaf’s Lutheran Church and the home of Dottie and Gilbert Weaver of Hearthstone place. Both spots experience decibel counts that are regularly 45-55% lower than the average. I often escape to these patches of reduced noise when I have trouble thinking. Sometimes I’ll see other of my neighbors there. We’ll have a drink or a smoke and commiserate, talk about how we’re having a difficult time adjusting to our new sonic landscape.
I also made a typology:
The Standard Screamer – These screamers let out a normal-intensity, normal-timbre human scream. They are the pigeons of the screamer world. Common. Lacking in hygiene.
The Half-Hearted Screamer – One specimen resides atop a ladder at the gas station by the grocery store. He rarely achieves high decibel levels, and you can tell his heart’s not in it. He’d rather be doing something else with his life, but some inner force drives him up the ladder. Sometimes I’ll toss him an apple or a bag of chips.
The Chuckler – The Chuckler is more interested in cackling and maniacal laughter than screaming per se. For the Chuckler, it’s as if it—“it” being construed in the broadest sense, here—is all one big joke. You can usually find one of these guys up a tree. There’s a Chuckler on Nun Street who hangs upside down on a branch. I usually avoid Nun Street for this reason.
The Night Howler – This type screams, putatively, from a place of great fear. Some residents liken the sounds he makes to those of a person being stabbed. And, of course, the Night Howler does their work while everyone is trying to sleep. These are the ones who tend to mysteriously vanish and turn up in ditches or on baseball diamonds, their corpses covered in signs of foul play. I don’t condone violence, but it is unreasonable to communicate so much fear at such late hours and to not expect some sort of reprisal.
The Wiz – The rarest kind of screamer. What’s distinctive about the Wiz is that he knows a word or two. I know of only one Wiz in our town, out by the West Pool. The word he knows is “wrench.” Is this special or significant? Some people think so. I used to try to get an explanation of the situation from this Wiz. But all he said in response to my queries was “wrench.” Some have said that he uses the word “hammer” as well, but no one on my team has been able to verify this. Maybe he worked in a hardware store before whatever happened to him happened to him.
I want to study these guys scientifically, but my wife, Jen, has a more artistic bent. She has put together a sort of audio collage. She brings me to the computer every few weeks to play her additions—there are always new ones flocking to the area.
“I’ve grouped them by timbre, babe. Listen!”
The first wave is throaty, guttural screaming. The next wave is high-pitched shrieks. Then we get a long minute of affect-free moans. Some are feminine, some masculine, most wobble between those frequencies.
“That’s nice, honey,” I say, though I wish she had a different hobby. We used to go bowling. She used to play the drums. These things have fallen by the wayside. We must all attend to the ladder folk, now. They are all anyone talks about. They take up a lot of space in the mind.
Most of the kids over the startle-prone ages of 0-2 seem to love our screamers. They give them nicknames, which I’ve been tracking: Our guy, for example, is called Damp Jacket, or DJ for short, on account of his—even in the winter he’s wearing this thing—Damp Jacket. They’ve given DJ multiple backstories: accountant, pirate, animal-transformed-into-person-by-witch. I admire the kids’ imagination; I just wish it could be applied to a more worthwhile subject. Nobody has come up with a satisfying answer to how and why he’s so wet all the time.
Damp Jacket isn’t Sylvia’s favorite screamer, however. She and her friends are obsessed with the screamer who set up his ladder in the mall food court, the one known for throwing water balloons at passersby. They call him Blooney. Sylvia and her friends made T shirts with Blooney’s face. They are members of an informal fan club for Blooney. They’ve even developed a game in the backyard involving balloons and screaming, emulating of their afflicted friend.
The kids are also into something they call The Circuit of Doom. On Saturday mornings, they run to each ladder in the subdivision, trying to catch every scream at full volume, which, they say, gives the effect of one continuous, day-long scream. Sylvia says she “caught the whole scream” only twice and it was “magical” on both occasions. What I have not been able to obtain a satisfactory answer about is why this activity is considered fun. “It just is,” Sylvia says….
I need to remind myself that things weren’t always this way. When my daughter is out on the Circuit, or when Jen is feeding psychotics or working on her audio collages, I’m in my garage building my model of the old Avery out of airplane glue and balsa wood. I have a model of the pool where I dove off the high dive for the first time. I have a model of the house I grew up in, but bulldozed years ago. I’m building the town from memory; it’s not easy. My hobby requires intense concentration, which is almost impossible now. The other day I was working on the old drive-in movie theater I went to as a kid—most of which fell into a sinkhole fifteen years ago—and as I was pasting the screen DJ let loose, and I poked a hole in it.
I just snapped. I’m not proud of what I did.
I went and yelled, threw rocks. I hit him a few times in the face, but Sylvia stopped me, climbed up the ladder and hugged DJ, called me a fascist. She gave me her most baleful glance.
“Don’t be angry at him, Dad. He is in pain. Be angry at whatever drove him up the ladder in the first place.”
“And what is that?”
She shrugged. Everyone shrugs. No one knows anything, but everyone speculates: Some say they received training from the government, that this is all some sort of PSYOP program to drive Avery nuts. Or that they were inmates from the mental institutions shuttered in the recent state budget cuts. They surely have the haunted looks for this to be the case, but the regularity of their activities seems to argue against it.
Others say they came from the war. That makes sense, too. The war is no good, most of us agree on that. Are they just letting out pent up battle trauma? If so, it doesn’t seem to be working. They never run out of it.
Some say they came from faraway countries. I’ve even heard that they are alien beings. Deb McClusky really stands behind that last one. At Deb and Tom’s last cookout, she told me she saw one crawl up his ladder and get beamed into the sky by a strange light. With BBQ sauce on her lower lip, she told me that the light, the ascent of that screamer, was the loveliest thing she’d ever seen.
Still others say the screamers can’t be extraterrestrials since they recognize their faces. They are from around here, it’s said, and I admit that some of them seem familiar, weathered and crazed as they are. The one on top of the grocery store reminds me of Ben, a guy I went to school with. I see traces of Ben in this hooting man.
Where they come from is maybe less interesting to me than the simple fact of their omnipresence, the thought-scattering suffering that they bring into our lives.
“It wasn’t always like this,” I tell my family during dinner. “There used to be days of peace and quiet, where the only suffering I had to deal with was my own.”
Jen and Sylvia tell me I’m remembering a rosier world than ever really existed. Sure, there weren’t always screamers, but there was something equivalent to them, they say. There was always suffering, always disruption. But I swear I’m right about this. DJ and his friends are a new thing with no precedent.
One night, DJ was carrying on for four hours. I went outside with the baseball bat. I banged on his ladder.
“How do you like it?” I said, tapping the ladder with the bat. I screamed until I was hoarse. Suddenly, DJ was laughing. He was enjoying my freak-out—maybe he could see my future up on one of those ladders.
“I’m sorry for whatever you are going through. But can you please come down and talk about it like a civilized person?”
He looked as if he had just become aware of himself. It seemed he almost would say something as he came halfway down the later. Then he was seized by evil and spat right in my face. He went back to howling at the moon, and I banged on the ladder until I felt exhausted and fell asleep on the lawn.
Sylvia saw the whole thing, condemned my attack, and is no longer speaking to me. I’m sure she will relent soon. But it is odd. One of the only people I want to talk to will not speak to me, while hundreds of lunatics go on endlessly for no important reason.
I offer to take her shopping to buy DJ some new, dryer, clothes. She ices me out. Jen says I need to give her time.
I’m soundproofing my garage, now, where my model town exists. Every day I add a layer or fill a hole. The screamers are muted, but we can no longer park our cars inside. Still, even the muted noise makes me want to leave Avery. Some days I convince myself that I will leave, with or without Jen and Sylvia. But who am I kidding? Many residents dream of moving away like I do, going to where silence is still possible. But this option is less tenable as the epidemic spreads. The screamers are in nearly every city, every town, and more seem to arrive all the time. They wander the country lanes, dirt on their boots, thumbs out looking for a ride. Environmentalists in Montana log cabins see them prowling the woods at night, shouting into the darkness, driving deer and rabbits through the underbrush.
There are nights when I hear Damp Jacket up on his ladder screaming through his psychic wounds and something strange happens to me. I begin to feel the pain he is describing, or some version of it, and I start missing the screamers from my childhood: the screamers who, while still reminding everyone of their inner torment, did so at an acceptable volume, not overdoing Blooney does now. Screamers who smiled at you sometimes or handed you flowers while they screamed. They go too far today, I’ll think, and I’ll proceed down this line of thought for some time, lying in my bed at the hotel, before I remember that there were no screamers who “screamed right” back then or handed out flowers or smiled at you, because screamers have only been here for a few years. Just a few, five at the most. But I can only remember this when I put in the effort: They weren’t always here. But it gets more difficult all the time to remember this simple fact. Many of the interviewees report a similar phenomenon, of forgetting that there was ever a time before the screamers and their ladders.
Out the window I see Syl and her friends running with the screamers. She shrieks and yodels, cries, pants, moans. I can’t tell if she is in control of her voice or if she has caught whatever the screamers have. I worry; I worry and build my silent chamber.
The screamers are sneaking into my memories. The other night I had recalled the screamer who attended my fourth-grade birthday party, screaming through the happy birthday song. He was a dapper screamer in a tux named Jimmy, with brill-creamed hair, whom I loved and learned from. He came to the library with me. He walked me to school. Or so I remembered. You’re being crazy! I thought. That wasn’t how it was at all! There was no Jimmy! But if this keeps up, I won’t be able to tell which memories are true and which are false. And if that happens, it will be difficult to find something to keep me from climbing a ladder.