To read the first part in this series, click here.
Like so many other extraordinary occasions in history, my meeting the Man with a Thousand Voices was due to fortune: a coincidence of impeccable timing and location.
His tale of a thousand voices had been growing in my mind for years, ever since I heard my grandmother tell it first, and as a seventeen-year-old in the throes of my final fall semester of high school, I found that the story had become a part of my identity the way moss coats a stony building. Where had the Man with a Thousand Voices been those forty-five years after confiding in my grandma? Did he accomplish his goal of writing a novel for each voice? Was he merely insane, or a genius among us? These questions led my imagination to many new fictitious wonderments as I wrote stories in my mind to fill in the gaps.
At that time in my life, I was also working part-time as a server at a local bar and grill called Jojo’s. Although both my parents worked professional full time jobs and were able to support my younger brother, my grandma, and myself just fine, I was following in the kindred footsteps of my grandmother and craved independence. In my eyes, if I could save up money, I’d be able to do whatever I wanted as soon as I graduated from high school. Consequently, I found myself often sacrificing attendance at football games for Friday night closing shifts, and even though I realized that these would be my last days in high school to make it everything I ever wanted, I had also mentally moved on from my peers, and fueled by the stories my grandmother had always told me, was dreaming of life post-high school, when the real adventures—and total independence—began.
I didn’t feel like I was missing out on much in high school, anyway. My handful of friends were fun and loyal, but I felt somewhat disconnected from them because our maturity levels contrasted greatly. Perhaps it was because I had spent most of my life around old people, but I always found myself far less interested in the shenanigans that enticed my peers.
My grandma didn’t always used to live with my family; for the first ten years of my life, she lived with my grandfather across the city. My parents had just gotten promotions at their jobs and felt that we had outgrown my childhood home, so they bought a rather large house in the newer part of town and my grandmother moved in with us.
Grandma Napa was a strong woman, so she held herself together tightly on the outside, but I knew my grandfather’s death affected her greatly. Perhaps I also bonded with her so closely because during that period, I loved how the light came back to her eyes when she told me a story. I’d see her grow quiet at the dinner table, her eyes wandering past her plate, and I’d ask her to recite the story about five-legged lion again for our family.
She was also good for me, too. I respected her when she advised me not to mess around with high school boys, not annoyed—“They’re not worth the time. Wait until the college boys,” she’d say with a wink. It had a totally different effect than when my mother would justify her own demands of me with “Because I said so,” which only made me feel less motivated to obey her. It wasn’t that I didn’t get along with my parents, it was just that my grandmother and I were kindred spirits, in a way that had somehow missed my mother in our matriarchal line. My mother always loved the practical, the rational, the rigid. That’s why she chose to marry my father, who was much like her.
So of course my practical parents wanted me to attend a prestigious out-of-state university, and then there was a familial obligation to return to Bemmingrad to settle down, as both my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had before me. This didn’t sound so appealing to me at eighteen, because while I was extremely close with my family, I had spent my entire youth enchanted by her tales of faraway travels. My grandma herself had done a fair amount of traveling before giving birth to my mother, but many of her stories were tales passed to her by others throughout her life. (It seemed there was some inexplicable quality in my grandmother that compelled others to share with her their own legends and tall tales.)
My grandmother loved to tell me about one of her old gal friends, Catherine, who was particularly adventurous and prone to risk-taking, even more so than my grandma was. As a young woman, Catherine had rode horseback west across the United States to Southern California, where she attempted to found her own university for women’s education. Completely astounded by the insufferable confidence of this unapologetic young woman, she was quickly targeted by a particularly enraged sexist group of men, and to escape their attack in the middle of the night, she leapt into a river and was carried away with its current.
Without a possession to her name and lost in what she didn’t know was Mexico, Catherine wandered northeast on foot for months until she found herself in Texas. There, she met and fell in love with a painter who lived a secluded life; they quickly married, but after a few years of what was likely an abusive relationship, she left for another solo cross-country trip and traveled (in the car she stole from her to-be ex-husband) north for New York City. However, along the way, while her car was broken down, she met a gypsy woman who came to her like a dream and gave her a vision that rattled her to her core.
After that, Catherine disappeared. She had been keeping in touch with my grandmother until then, but the letter containing the gypsy’s message was the last she ever heard from her.
My grandmother wouldn’t tell me what the vision was, when I was a kid. “You’re too young,” she would whisper, as though that information alone was too promiscuous to share with me. I wondered what perverted vision a gypsy could have given Catherine that I wasn’t allowed to know.
Catherine and Raymond’s tales were some of my favorite, and it didn’t escape me that they were both stories that ended in a foggy uncertainty. What happened to Catherine? What happened to Raymond? There was no author I could write to, begging for more information about these people’s fantastical existences; no, these were real people whose lives could have taken any twist unbeknownst to us, and we may never know.
So I suppose it was subliminally yet inevitably ingrained in me by my grandmother to always be on the “lookout” for a story. She and I loved “spying” on the neighbors, sharing our observations about their lives. If their car was missing from their driveway during a time of day it was usually parked there, we would conspire about what they could possibly be up to. “They have a ‘Vote for our Schools’ sign in their yard. Perhaps the mother is at the council meeting tonight?” It was like P.I. work with nothing at stake but our entertainment.
Funny enough, working at a restaurant provided me rife opportunity to connect the dots of humanity’s most subtle scraps of information; for example, I could tell a lot from a person by the state they left their table. When a mother of screaming twins left her table in perfectly-piled heaps of crayons and napkins, I felt a had a little understanding of who she was as a person and a mother. I loved sharing my silliest deductions with my grandmother at the end of the shift, especially if I had reason to believe I had supposed correctly.
I had started at Jojo’s over the summer before my senior year of high school, and because I had lived in Bemmingrad my whole life (and so had my mom, and so had my grandma), I often found myself serving people I knew: family friends, family doctors, co-workers of my parents, my classmates and their families. (The one demographic I had no street credit with were college students, who often came from the other side of the city to eat at our under-the-radar local spot. They terrified me with their rude attitudes, and they never tipped.) Because of my friendly rapport with guests and my quiet, diligent work ethic, I quickly became a “priority” server, which meant I was scheduled during the high-volume shifts when the dinner rush happened and the restaurant brimmed with hungry humans, all wanting to eat the biggest meal of the day at the exact same time.
It was during one of these classically busy evenings that the Thousand-Voiced Man came in to Jojo’s and dined his much-anticipated existence right in front of me. In fact, it was so busy that I almost missed him; well, technically, I did miss him.
I was having an unusually bumpy shift that night, and while I was typically able to remember drink orders without writing them down, that specific evening, I had already forgotten two different tables’ orders and accidentally rang in a dish that the kitchen no longer had in stock; I hated when I did that because it was such a foolish mistake. Caught up in my own frustrations, I was trying my best to shake it off and keep up with my work, and because of this, I didn’t notice a single gentleman—older, with a classy trilby hat angled on his head—wander into the restaurant.
If you’ve never worked at a restaurant before, then it may unnerve you to know it’s common for servers to talk about the customers at their tables, and it was due to this particular tendency that Raymond’s presence was thankfully brought to my attention. My co-worker Stacy was using the register at the bar, and I was standing beside her, impatiently waiting to use it after she finished so I could ring out my tables. I was staring at her blond hair, pulled up into a spiky bun at the very top of her head, when she looked at me chuckling and commented, “Check this out—this guy gave me his license instead of his credit card.” She held out the black check presenter, and flipped it open to show me, revealing the receipt for his bill and a white card with a black stripe; then she turned over the license and revealed the card, which had a photo of a older black man and his personal information in tiny print.
“Oh my god,” she guffawed, and I felt irritated with her total lack of urgency for the busy restaurant around us, irritated that she was wasting my time with this little anecdote about her table. “What a basic name—Raymond Johnson. I bet he gets his identity stolen all the time.”
The name would have triggered a faster response from me had I not been so distracted, but it wasn’t until I forced a laugh and Stacy walked away to go trade his license for an actual form of payment that, amid the medley of the 86’ed menu items I was reciting to myself, the significance of that name finally surfaced, and I almost shouted out when it occurred to me: Raymond Johnson! The Man with a Thousand Voices!
Frantically, I glanced around the dining room, searching for Stacy so I could take a closer look at the license before she returned it to its owner; Raymond Johnson was an incredibly common name, so if I noted his personal information, I could check to make sure it was actually him, the same man my grandmother had met fifty-nine years ago, the exact man who had been living right under our noses the past fourteen years yet never crossed our paths. I spotted Stacy among the crowds of tables with full seats and servers hastily darting through the restaurant’s aisles, but she was talking to a table, so that meant I couldn’t talk to her—as a rule, we never interrupted other servers while they were at a table.
But I also couldn’t wait around for her to finish up because I had a list of tasks to do that was growing by the second. I quickly reassessed, and mapped out the next few tasks I could complete that would likely make me cross paths with Stacy soon. After dropping a few checks and running a couple water refills, I found her by the Pepsi machine, filling cups of water.
“Hey! That guy whose license you had—where’s he sitting? Is he still here?” I ambushed her with these questions, and she asked me to repeat myself because she hadn’t caught the beginning.
“Oh, that guy! Yeah he’s nice. Weird though. He’s at table 6 by himself. I feel bad because he’s always reading when I have to ask him questions, so it’s like I’m bothering him,” she chatted, leisurely filling up a tumbler with ice. “But I already cashed him out.”
My heart leapt and I left her standing there as I weaved across the room, headed for his table. I was so nervous—what was I doing? How was I going to lead—“Hello stranger, my grandma tells me about you all the time”? My brain was all passion and no mind; I was just so excited to receive a crumb of information about his last several decades of existence, even how his voice sounded. But what did I have to lose?
As I rounded the corner to his table, I beheld an empty booth. The sickening nausea of defeat poured from my head to my gut like a cold glass of water dumped on me, and I stared helplessly at Raymond’s absence. I surveyed what was left behind: a cup with only ice cubes, a used napkin folded in a square, and the check presenter with a ten-dollar bill lying upon it.
A last spark of hope flared and I looked up, surveying the dining room again; it wasn’t uncommon for a guest to use the restroom on their way out of the building. He wasn’t near the restrooms, but miraculously, I caught a glimpse of a man with a hat disappearing in the gathering of customers waiting for a table by the host stand, and then he was gone into the evening.
Frozen, I debated whether to run after him or accept my loss at an interview and return to the compounding demands of my section. As I mulled this over briefly, my eyes noticed a little spot of light on the dim floor by the table’s base, and I squinted and bent down to pick up whatever it was. When I touched it, I realized it was cardstock; it was a glossy black bookmark with a stack of books on it. I turned it over and saw the logo and contact information for Bemmingrad’s own local bookstore, Logos Loft. Was this Raymond’s bookmark?
At that moment, the busboy appeared with a towel and shouldered me out of his way. “What’s that?” he asked, grabbing the cup, napkin, and check presenter in one hand and wiping the table cloth in large, rapid circles.
“Nothing,” I responded, a little intrigued by my desire to hoard the magic of this bookmark. It was like a small, greedy possessiveness I felt for Raymond Johnson, his thousand voices, and this little unsuspecting bookmark that would be my ticket into his formerly untouchable mansion.
As excited as I was—feeling like Prince Charming with Cinderella’s glass slipper—I hesitated to tell my grandmother about this discovery. She was the first person I told everything to, but part of me wondered if I should go this leg of the journey alone. I wasn’t quite sure if she’d even approve of me ringing his doorbell to return the bookmark, if she’d consider it “meddling” or not. But also, I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me, and I knew I’d never be able to keep a secret from her. So, a couple days later I told her that a man I believed to be the Raymond Johnson had been in the restaurant and that I intended to return his bookmark to him.
While I was explaining to her how I happened upon Raymond’s bookmark, Grandma Napa took off her reading glasses and looked carefully at me, watching my face closely with her soft, open eyes. Occasionally she’d nod or smile at my comments, and her friendly focus invigorated me. I caught myself enjoying the fact that I was the one doling out a story to her, a story she was so invested in, yet only I knew the events, and I was the one who shaped the story’s form for her imagination to interpret. Although it was a relatively short account, it was like I was reliving the moment as I orated it.
“That’s incredible,” she said at the end, closing her eyes and smiling into her lap, which was covered with a square quilt she often kept on her for warmth. Only then did her eyes begin to wander around the room as she tilted her rocking chair back and forth. “How fascinating. The tables have turned, Rosa, you realize? This has become your tale.”
I had only a sense of what she meant by this, but I felt it, too, in the way she could forecast rain by the feeling in her bones. My whole adolescence, the Man with a Thousand Voices was my grandmother’s tale which I listened to dutifully, but after all this time it had gradually shifted into my own woven basket of tales that I would carry the way Napa had, on with me forever.
Her approval of my mission made it feel that much more right. I was going to meet the Man with a Thousand Voices whose legend I had marveled at my entire youth.
This is the second part in a four-part series! Find the whole story here.
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About the Author
B.C. Spines, or Brittany Cole, is the author and artist behind the blog Slanted Spines. She has been writing her entire existence as a coordinated wielder of the pen, and will likely never stop writing. Every week she writes for Slanted Spines, and spends her free time practicing yoga, reading books, playing with her cats, or drawing on her tablet. Check out her entire database of work at slantedspines.com!