If I’m thankful for one thing, it’s that I had the sense to believe everything my grandma ever told me when I was a young girl.
Because of this, I knew better than to stick my arm out the backseat window of my family’s minivan, because then God would descend from heaven above to chop it off, and I’d have only myself to blame for having no more hands, just like Grandma Napa warned me—and thankfully she did, so I could warn all my schoolyard friends, too. In middle school, I’d use her all-knowing bones to predict for me whether rain was imminent or not, and if at breakfast she determined it would rain, I’d take an umbrella on my way to school to protect my viciously heat-treated hair; meanwhile, other girls without rain-predicting grandmothers would squeal and pull their backpacks over their hunched shoulders when the clouds rumbled suddenly and a precipitous downfall let loose upon our bus stop. And of course, I was always scandalously mystified with her adolescent adventures, such as her thrilling orations of how she broke her school’s dress code time and time again by wearing denim jeans, and how she’d smoke cigarettes in the girl’s locker room during phys-ed, and then would interrupt the story to add that I should never smoke.
However, it was high school—when I was discovering the fringe of my own poeticism—during which I found myself most enchanted by a single well-told fable, one of her best stories, in my opinion, which was the story of the Man with a Thousand Voices. And while Grandma loved all her folklore, this one was different; she always put down her knitting as she prepared to tell this one, as though it merited complete concentration to dictate it just right, a focus not as necessary for the other tales.
What I personally found so compelling about this fable, aside from its mysterious implications and how it was shrouded in fantastical possibility, was that it was my grandmother’s and mine alone. Its very legend took place in our own city of Bemmingrad, and we seemed to be the only two cohorts through which this rich story lived. It lifted the corner of our town’s veil and peered into its shadow-cloaked history, and it was only due to my grandmother’s keen observation and arguably nosy inclination that this tale even existed.
As younglings often are, I was ungrateful for this story when she first bestowed it to me, in 2003. It was a winter’s eve by the fireplace, after my little brother and parents had gone to sleep, and Grandma and I the night owls of the family, she began to tell me of how polar bears came to be polar; interrupting her (and now, somewhat glad I did), I whined, “Tell me a new story, Grandma. I’ve heard this one already. The grizzly bear got trapped on a chunk of ice.”
“Oh, you snot,” she sighed sharply. Then she removed her semi-circle reading glasses and placed her needles and their anchor of yarn on the thin-legged table beside her chair. “Well then, perhaps you’d like to finally learn about the Man with a Thousand Voices,” she said, and it was a like she was dangling a diamond before me tauntingly, and darkly ushering me deeper into her entrancing lair where she would reveal to me even more spoils she had swiped throughout her life. The fire’s crackling purr gave stage for her voice, and its flames shone a dull, orange spotlight on the soft skin upon her face.
Before she so much as introduced the setting, my perturbed preteen snark asked, “Why does it always have to be a man?” But crossing my arms and settling into the chair across from her, I smiled to myself with splendor; despite my jagged pride and snotty attitude, I loved her imagination more than anything, and based off this title alone, I knew I was bound to serve this story for good—my role as a listener and a participant, and later, a teller.
As a young and affected teenager, the story marinated with me over the years, and I kept it close to my heart, often daydreaming of the epics that lurked in the gaps of my grandmother’s firsthand account. During study hall, I wrote poems about the man and his voices, and at night, I dreamt of what inside his haunting house would look like.
As she used to tell it—the story of the Man with a Thousand Voices— when my grandma was a “twiggy lass with an overactive tongue and a passion for pissing people off,” she attended our town’s Bemmingrad High School with a peculiar fellow named Raymond Johnson who moved to the district their senior year.
Raymond seemed quite charming to the student body at first, and Bemmingrad was a much smaller town back then, so new students drew more attention. Within a couple weeks, their classmates soon began to mutter about Raymond, passing whispers that he was insane—a sociopath—that he acted differently with everyone. No one had ever witnessed him being malicious, but his demeanor was odd. When their class president gave Raymond a tour on his first day, he spoke with an English accent and explained he had moved here on his own, having been orphaned at a young age; but then, word quickly spread that the star quarterback’s girlfriend had overheard Raymond telling the nerdy students that his parents were biology professors in the city. My grandmother’s best friend had a locker by Raymond’s, and claimed he had once been in World War II—which was impossible, as they were still in high school.
My grandma, not being one to trust others’ judgments, of course had to get to the bottom of this. “It seemed cowardly for us all to speak a thousand different stories about him behind his back but never confront him about it,” she often added as a sidebar to this story, “So one day, I asked him myself.”
It was a spring afternoon after the last bell rang, and my grandma caught up to Raymond walking through the front yard of their school. He was a handsome young man, lean yet toned, dark-skinned and pensive, clean-cut with a suavity. My grandmother always liked to say that all gossip aside, she was actually quite prepared to ask him out if the conversation went well because he was what she boldly deemed “a looker.” In a girlish drawl, she called, “Raymond! Excuse me, Raymond!” and trotted after him, and he finally turned and look at her, a pearly yet lopsided grin stretching across his face when his eyes met the woman who so sweetly sang his name.
I love the way my grandma always recalled this story with such authority, stating with certainty its precise details, as though during the moment it was unfolding, the words imprinted themselves verbatim upon her memory:
“Hey there Raymond, if that is your name. Now, which stud am I talking to today? I hear there’s a few.” Grandma was eighteen when she reenacted this bit, even at seventy years old flirtatiously rolling her shoulders, beaming at her own pick-up line, either endearingly proud of it or delightfully amused by it. When the wording changed ever so slightly, from a “Hello Mr. Raymond,” to a “Hey Ray,” I believed her every time, that this time she told it was the actual way it went, the way it objectively happened. This telling was the truest version—every time.
Helplessly charmed by my grandma’s plucky wit—after all, this was my grandma’s tale—he asked if they could speak somewhere more private, and they found refuge beneath the football bleachers behind their school, where they talked for an hour and Raymond confided in my grandmother something that she believes he told no one else in Bemmingrad.
Raymond told her of his thousand voices, the thousand voices that he explained lived inside him.
“I have all kinds of voices inside me—I’ve counted a thousand, but there may be more. I house the voices of a thousand different hearts. Men, women, young, old. I have all their voices inside of me.” My grandma’s voice as she told this tale became like the universe’s serene, all-knowing hum as she said (as the Man with a Thousand Voices), “Their thoughts and feelings swim inside me, churning like ocean currents, and speaking to me in my waking and dreaming hours.”
The voices had not come all at once, however. When Raymond was a young boy, he hosted only a handful of voices, who could celebrate his birthday with him and laugh when they shared a joke. As he grew up, more voices budded and blossomed, and while initially he enjoyed the metropolis of existence that shared his headspace, their feelings and their memories became more vivid and affecting. Often, he would burst out crying without any prompting, and curl up under his bed for hours while the tangled web of voices ripped away at his insides.
Each voice was unique. Raymond could recite their names, state their birthdates and family members, provide their life’s summary, tell you the direction they parted their hair. Moreover, he felt their aspirations, fears, memories, and anxieties; their existence pulsed within his own. But there were so many, and he was only one young man, so often he felt torn by their conflicting personalities and widespread emotions. It got to be quite a burden, he sometimes felt, to carry their load.
Having reached a low point, becoming consumed by the echoes of their screams and songs, Raymond had conceived an idea that offered a possibility of escape.
“I am on a mission to write a novel for every voice that lives inside me,” Raymond concluded his story to my young grandmother, solemnly stating his life’s sentence. “I believe that if I pay penance to each voice that pulsates within me, I may be granted silence in exchange.” Like laying them to rest one-by-one.
“How many have you done so far?” my grandma had asked him.
“Unfortunately,” he replied, “none yet.” (This part always warranted a cynical chuckle from my grandma.)
Having been so thoroughly entreated by his voices, my grandma must have been careening towards a kiss with him—I can imagine it, the two of them huddling beneath the grungy bleachers—and she had a decent probability of success, from the sounds of it, had they not been interrupted by a faraway rumble of thunder. Raymond startled and looked at his watch, then urgently excused himself with a half-hearted mumble and ran across the football field, leaving my grandmother to watch after his decreasing figure sprinting away, as long streams of raindrops began to fall all around them.
My grandmother had hoped to talk to him again after that day, but to her dismay, on Monday morning when she greeted him in the hallway, he replied to her as though he had never spoken to her before. She tried confronting him privately in order to respect his secret, but she made no progress through his stubborn personas and eventually after several discrete attempts, gave up. Then, before graduation, he disappeared.
He was known among her class as “Two-Faced Ray,” or some other uninspired nickname describing only the most surface level angle. Yet, to my grandmother, he was always known as the Man with a Thousand Voices, or her friend Raymond. Graduation came swiftly that late spring and as men went off to college and women married rich businessmen, then as Bemmingrad burst from a quaint town to a booming suburb, no one from my grandma’s class remained to speak of Raymond, much less recall him with any amount of integrity.
I can tell my grandmother never quite figured out why Raymond entrusted his secret to her, what was so special about young Grandma Napa that she was permitted to know something so intimate about a total stranger. It may have occurred to her—although she showed no indication—that what he told her under the bleachers was a complete fib, a ridiculous fabrication of a sociopathic compulsive liar. Typical of my grandma, she fell deeply into the drama of the fable and let her imagination dictate reality.
But she was honored to possess this secret intel, and to my utter delight, it didn’t end there with Raymond’s youthful disappearance. Grandma said she had feared the worst all those years—grieved his probably tragic end or rock bottom struggles, until one day in 1993, about ten years before she first orated this tale, she saw Raymond again in Bemmingrad’s own supermarket.
“I hadn’t seen his face for forty-five years, and yet, I swear that was him picking up an orange,” she said, still baffled. It was something in his eyes—a depth, or an intensity that, even when merely mulling over grapefruit, was still palpable. A shadow across his face, and yet, she admitted, he looked very good for their age.
Yet, my grandma didn’t feel as confident about her own appearance, and haunted by doubt, she let him pass by her in the aisle, his musky scent of leather brushing by, and she was left with only a vague impression of him, as always.
As she is a sleuth, she eventually discovered it was, in fact him. By digging through public records, she found that he had miraculously returned to Bemmingrad, seemingly for good, after having vanished for decades, absolutely no information available on him. It was as though he temporarily became a ghost, then reappeared and bought a house.
It was the following spring after she told me about the Man with a Thousand voices that she drove me by his house, although to my young eyes it looked to be a mansion. I had driven by it numerous times before, unwittingly admiring it in the way one admires the Gothic work of Poe, fascinated yet slightly disturbed by its creepy creativity, but seeing it in this newly informed light gave it an even more mystical aura. It was a grand house, set back far from the road up a long, ascending driveway, and its Victorian three-floored structure perched astutely behind a pointy black fence, and a cluster of barren trees gathered close around it.
So Raymond—the Man with a Thousand Voices—was right across town, a legend walking among us! This second bit of the story, how Raymond continued to live and exist so close in Bemmingrad, yet so tantalizingly out of reach, as my grandmother insisted that we should never bother him, for she had never seen him out in public again since that day in the supermarket, this bit of the story was what ignited that writerly intrigue that kept me fantasizing about his voices. I wished so badly that my grandma would just look up his phone number and call him, so that I could engorge in another helping of the story.
“It sounds like you’re making excuses,” I provoked, insatiable.
“You just have to draw the line somewhere when it comes to snooping in someone’s business,” she justified firmly, picking up her needles again to signify the end of this late night’s storytelling session, and a yawn suddenly burst from my mouth. She began to slowly dance her docile sticks in and around her tails of yarn, as she added, “He clearly prefers his privacy. It’d be tacky to go meddling! We just don’t have a reason to go marching up to his front door.”
Fortunately for us though, four years later, I would have the perfect reason to do just that.
This is the first part in a four-part series! Find the whole story here.
For more stories by Slanted Spines, check out the Stories page!
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