Over the years, I’ve found that writing feels more natural for me than storytelling. Perhaps it is my generation, or maybe I can pin it on my zodiac sign, but while my grandmother always possessed the God-given gift of commanding a story with her speech, my speaking abilities have been consistently decent at best.
If my grandmother were alive, she would have none of that, though; she always insisted that anybody can tell a story, they just need someone to listen. I prefer this in its written sense, but I tell a tale when my sons inquire, or in honor of Grandma Napa at family reunions. It’s in those moments that I try my hardest to hear my grandmother’s voice once again through my own.
It was 2007 and I was going to meet the Legend of my grandmother’s own folk tale: the Man with a Thousand Voices. He had left behind his bookmark at the restaurant where I worked, and now I—a noble youth!—would return it to him. I had spent so much of my adolescence daydreaming about this story—how my grandmother had met this peculiar gentleman in high school with a thousand voices living inside him, and after he disappeared for forty-five years, silently returned to Bemmingrad where he has been living under our noses for over a decade as a silent recluse. Had he written his thousand books? Was he now a single voice? What travels had he seen?
My grandma felt I should go alone to see him. She kept telling me how this was now my folk tale to collect, how this was my story to curate. She had found so many stories in her lifetime, and now this was the beginning of my own explorations. Excited as she was to discover the answers as well, her insistence that I go alone was a testament to how proud she was of me, and how much she believed in my independence. It felt good to have her confidence.
However, being women, it didn’t escape us that Raymond Johnson was potentially a dangerous man, and while my grandmother wholeheartedly believed in the enchanted existence of his thousand voices, we also reserved a sliver of disbelief enough to be cautious; all to say, my grandmother was going to wait in the car outside his house while I interviewed him inside.
During our scheming over the cluttered dining room table, my mother caught wind of our excitement.
“Oh you’re finally going to snoop in front of Mr. Johnson’s back?“ she asked from the kitchen as she slid a baking dish in the oven and set a timer. My mother felt that Grandma Napa and I had inherited the “nosy” gene, which my grandmother firmly protested was an “inquisitive” gene.
My grandmother replied, “No, he left his bookmark at the restaurant and Rosa is kindly going to return it.” Glancing at me with a wink, she added in a mutter, “And ask a few questions.” I beamed.
Noticing our quiet shared snicker, my mom shouted, “See! You two are always up to something!” We heard the clattering of pots and pans out of sight. Grandma snickered and then told me to go do some homework so she could spend some time with my mother.
The next day after school, I drove my dad’s car to the outskirts of town, where Raymond Johnson lived. Years back, my grandmother had discovered he owned this house (by being “inquisitive”) and until now, it remained in our minds as stored information waiting for this very occasion to put to use.
It was a large brick house with tall, narrow windows and a cartoonishly pointed roof, set far back from the road by an acre of open grass. Clustered around the house, trees huddled densely to obscure it from the road. There were no cars in the driveway, and a closed garage perched beside the house, the ribbon of driveway spilling from it like a tongue.
Pulling up his long, ascending, driveway and parking the car in front of the garage, I was nervous. It was a temperate autumn day, and warm-toned leaves matted his yard, as the other half of the leaves still clung to the twisting arms of trees. My armpits and palms were damp, yet I shivered and my fingertips were practically purple. My nose was running, and I pulled the sleeves of my sweatshirt around my knuckles. Frowning, I looked at my grandmother.
“Don’t be nervous, Rosa,” she said from the passenger’s seat. She wore her auburn babushka wrapped closely around her head, turning as far as she could see to check out his property. The brick of his house was weathered, and in some spots along the foundation, moss began to spread.
“I’ll text you in fifteen minutes. And then when it’s been an hour, call me,” I reminded her, unfastening my seat belt and turning the car off. I left the keys dangling out of the ignition and turned to her for a moment. My grandmother only owned her cell phone because my parents had bought it for her; while she struggled with technology, she could manage texting.
We smiled at each other, and then I grabbed my tote bag and got out of the car, leaving my grandma to rubberneck at his house as I went to learn about the Man with a Thousand Voices.
It took a few minutes for Raymond to answer the door. Once again, I almost missed my chance. After the first couple times I knocked, then the three times I rang the doorbell after that, I was feeling somewhat of a pest. Standing awkwardly on his small porch, glancing at my grandmother in the car every other minute, I bounced on my toes, wincing when I felt enough time had passed to try another ring. In fact, I don’t remember much from his porch because my imagination was tumulting with all the various possibilities that this could go, although I swear I saw the window curtain by the porch ripple and a blond woman’s straight hair flick out of sight.
At last, the large burgundy door opened inwards and only a screen door stood between me and an older black man, who squinted as he looked me up and down. “May I help you?”
He was almost the same height as I was, except a bit taller. His hair was in the process of morphing white, a marbled effect between silver and salt, and his voice was like the stirring of a thousand tree tops in the wind, deep and organic.
I found my voice shaking as I spoke what I had rehearsed: “Hello sir, are you by chance Raymond Johnson? I believe you were at Jojo’s the other day?”
Still through the screen door, he said blankly, “Yes.”
My heart skipped a beat and I let out a large breath too audibly. “Well, cool! I think you—you left your bookmark and I, uh, just happened to know you live here…” Trailing off, I reached into my bag and slid the bookmark out of my journal, holding it out to him so he could see.
His eyes flicked to the bookmark, face calm with only a slightly bothered tint to his expression, somewhere between his eyelids and eyebrows. It was as though this were his first time ever seeing the bookmark.
“Oh, I didn’t realize,” he said. “I finished my book during dinner and never noticed.”
Somewhat thrown off by his unwavering blank demeanor, I clumsily segued into my much-anticipated request. “Actually, uh,” I said, my voice raising an octave, “I was also wondering if you went to high school in Bemmingrad? Your senior year? My grandmother, her name is Henrietta Napatelli, maybe you remember her?”
Raymond frowned with an almost imperceptible dip of his brow, then held my gaze with a poker face before answering, “Yes, I believe I did.”
Now it was for the defining moment; I exhaled and bolstered a little. “Yeah! So, I was also wondering if you would be willing to let me interview you for an hour? Ah, you left quite the impression on my grandmother… And I thought we could maybe chat for an hour or so, if you weren’t too busy?” I held my breath as he glanced back inside his house.
“Sure,” he finally said, cracking for the first time what seemed to be a smile. “I’ve got an hour.”
After he invited me in, Raymond invited me to take a seat in the front living room while he went to the kitchen to make us each a cup of tea. I took a seat on a claw foot arm chair with hard yellow-green cushions. The back of it was so tall and curvaceous that I perched on the edge of the seat, a little slouched, glancing around the large room, which was quite brightly lit despite the sheer curtains which cloaked each window. His floors were hardwood throughout the house, and the tall ceilings did nothing to make the room feel cozier—the daunting stature of the house made its near-barren rooms feel cold and vacant. I could see clear past the entrance’s foyer into the dining room across the house, which had only a drab oak table and a floor lamp, and the living room I was in merely contained two mismatched arm chairs and a round end table.
I wondered if I could attribute his lack of decor to his peculiar nature, his solitude, or his belonging to the male species. Although my family had only lived in our house for six years at the time, its walls and shelves were already helplessly cluttered with Knick knacks and trinkets; how could this man have spent fourteen years in this drafty mansion without so much as buying a rug?
Raymond returned shortly and set the mugs, their tails dangling, on the coffee table, which shifted its weight upon the uneven floorboards. With a grunt, he plopped into the blue arm chair and folded his hands in each other, resting them on his belly.
He looked so normal, sitting there in his purple checkered sweater vest and yellow collared shirt, gazing at me as though he were my own grandfather.
I still had his bookmark in my hand and had been playing with it, holding it by the edges so my moist fingers didn’t smear grease on its glossy surface. Holding it out to him again, I commented, “Here’s—er, that bookmark…” Standing up for a moment, I set it by the teas on the table.
“So you’re here to ask me about my life?” Raymond asked, a calm smile playing on his lips, as though he were amused.
I explained that my grandmother and I loved hearing stories, and that his was one we had always sort of wondered about. I attempted to downplay how fixated we were, so as not to intimidate him; “sort of wondered about” could have been replaced with “obsessed,” but it sounded too intense. I said my grandma had always wondered why he had disappeared from school and hoped he had been okay.
Before he began speaking, I sent a text to my grandmother: So far so good! I typed, then set it down in my lap so I could demonstrate my focus to Raymond (yet if I needed to, could quickly grab it and dial).
“So, to start off, just tell me a little bit about yourself,” I prompted with a friendly smile and wide eyes.
In his easy voice, Raymond told me he had been born abroad, and when he was a toddler, his family had moved to our country. His parents were involved in a circus act that relocated them frequently; he was an only child, and they treated him more like a pet than a son. Although he was vaguely useful to them when he was a child—agile and flexible—once he grew to be a teenager, they left him mostly to his own devices, and he enjoyed quite a bit of solitude during their life on the road.
“I remember your grandmother—vaguely,” he said, thoughtfully. His voice was naturally measured and flowed like the steady ink from a fountain pen. His words transformed into vivid illustrations in my imagination.
“Henrietta was a beautiful woman, at a time when we attended school with cute girls. I remember her affect more than I remember her, herself; when she spoke to me, I knew that I couldn’t say anything wrong. She was going to absorb anything I said. It was a look she had. Like yours.” His wan expression winked at me endearingly.
As he explained this, I knew exactly what he meant, and I felt almost squirmy at how accurately he recalled her, for someone who hardly remembered her. He couldn’t say the color of her hair or even if she had glasses, but he knew how she carried herself with an openness.
“How long have you been living in Bemmingrad again?” I asked. I had brought a journal and pen with me to record his answers, but in the moment I felt a bit too shy to pull it out; for some reason, it felt like documenting his answers would feel too rigid, too formal. Part of me felt it might sully his willingness to speak for fear of what I recorded—and what I would use the recording for.
Raymond had moved to Bemmingrad about fourteen or fifteen years ago after a lifetime of traveling. Exhausted and ready to settle down, he chose a type of house that he had dreamed of as a boy—large, powerful, permanent. He lived here by himself, spending his days reading and meditating. When I asked him why he had chosen Bemmingrad, he merely said, “The market was good.”
“Well, you seem rather well-adjusted, considering,” I remarked, and mentally cursed myself for saying this before I had thought how it sounded. “I mean, my grandmother has told me of your thousand voices.” It’s not that I was keeping his “thousand voices” secret, but it felt a little brazen to mention it without his first alluding to it; perhaps I had been too bold and he would be angry at my meddling.
But he didn’t glare, didn’t shout, just chuckled in a smug way, from his belly. Shifting so he sat up straighter, he finally reached forward and picked up a mug of tea and took a drink. Following suit, I leaned and took the other other mug, taking a leery sip.
“Well, I’m glad you think so,” he finally said, kindly. “I suppose you would also like to know more about that. It seems this may be at the heart of your visit.”
This wasn’t an accusation; he didn’t say it with malice but rather cool observation. Because of this, I nodded; he had “caught” me, or I had given myself away. He was merciful though, and indulged me.
“My parents were the reason I traveled as a child. The thousand voices were the reason I traveled as an adult. My life is much more stable now… As it turns out, there were far more than a thousand voices, but the phrase does have an endearing ring to it.”
I felt a burst of vibration on my lap as my phone buzzed with a text notification. The screen being face down, I merely glanced at the back cover and ignored it.
“Do you know how many? The Man with Two Thousand Voices sounds intriguing, too,” I commented, taking a risk with this silliness I usually reserved for close relatives and friends.
“More like 2 million and growing,” he responded, with an agile tongue.
My eyes widened, and I laughed in amazement. “How?!” I wondered.
Raymond finished his tea and set down the empty mug. “Am I so fascinating?” he asked, genuinely. “Doesn’t every writer have a million voices inside them?”
Some part of me felt let down by this ordinary answer. “You’re a writer?” I tried, hoping he would elaborate and perhaps tell me about how his goal of writing a book for each voice.
“Oh yes, I have written several books. Definitely hundreds,” he corrected, humbly.
At that point, I felt frustrated; Raymond was holding something back. I had presented so many opportunities for him to meander through events in his life, recounting memories and personal tales, yet he always provided me with answers that felt they were shells of something richer. It was like what I really wanted to hear about was buried inside.
When I spoke to my grandmother, the conversation was abundant and flowing. However, while Raymond was eloquent and charismatic, he was withholding and our conversation felt starved.
I felt frustrated with him, then conflicted. Should I pry harder? Or respect his boundaries and walk away? Was he going to pretend he wasn’t utterly fantastical, or was he actually just normal?
Now, had I been in that situation at my current age, I would have likely met the boundary with a tip of my hat and conceded. However, at seventeen, I was hungry enough and foolish enough to disregard the clear taboo and cross the line confidently; I took advantage of his kind demeanor.
“Mr. Johnson, how exactly have you managed to cope with your millions of voices? How does your writing affect the presence of those voices, and can you please provide specific examples? Be incredibly colorful, as I would love to hear it all.” I may have even brought my hands together as though I were begging.
Perhaps until then, he had underestimated me, but something about my driven questions interested him, and I could tell in the way his eyebrow twitched upward.
“You are quite the interviewer,” he deflected. “Those are great questions.” After a brief staring contest, he continued.
“When I was a young man, I was very troubled by the presence of so many voices in my mind. I was unsure of how to cope, as you have said, with them. It was quite overwhelming to me, and I believed that if I could write a novel for each of the voices I heard and knew, then perhaps I could release the voice and gain clarity. It was difficult enough managing these voices, but compounded on that, high school guidance counselors were constantly contacting my parents with their preposterous ‘concerns’ about my personality, and that was another reason why my education was so jagged.
“In my adulthood I began to write, for one of the first times in my life, and I found it temporarily quelled the humming of the cacophonous ensemble in my thoughts. The writing was relief, but as soon as I stopped writing, the riot would return. I became addicted to it, and the action of writing which at first felt so euphoric and relieving began to feel like a chore, a rote and exhausting task that I was imprisoned to complete each day. Eventually, I wished I didn’t have to write to stop the pain; I wished the the voices would stay quiet without the rigorous duty of writing. I traveled and wrote furiously for decades, searching for peace, begging for escape, failing at even numbness.
“I became temperamental, angry, drunk. I was bitter about my lot; why have I been granted this curse? I was a brilliant writer, pumping out masterpieces, and it still wasn’t good enough for the universe to quiet my incessant suffering? Jaded, I swore off writing. I would rather live as a martyr than devote my life to this pointless servitude of language. I had done so much traveling, I had lived a thousand lives of others, not mine, that I needed to finally pause and look face-to-face with myself. Whoever that man was.
“There is a library in this house, right up there; t’s upstairs, a large room overlooking the front yard, lined wall-to-wall with books. They were all written by me. They are published under different names, yet I am the author who penned them all. Although I still live in agony, I am proud of my voices; they are so beautiful, though they are destructive.
“So how have I managed to cope all these years, with my millions of voices? At first, I tried to ignore them, then I fought them. Then I gave in to them. And now… I leave them alone. And on my good days, they leave me alone.”
“Have you found yourself?” I asked.
“As it happened, there was nothing to find. I am only voices.”
When I was younger, when my grandmother told me of “the Man with a Thousand Voices,” it sounded exciting. I imagined a man surrounded by a colorful fog of cartoonish angels, each a different person, happily chatting and accompanying the legendary Raymond Johnson. To me, he was like Snow White whistling to the woodland animals, who assisted her with her house chores; when Raymond had the spirits of a thousand souls with him, I viewed it as a divine gift of storytelling, like a godly orator of spirits.
I would fantasize about how each of the voices may have led Raymond through adventure after adventure—the voice of a pirate would take him on a voyage across the sea to an unknown island, the voice of a gypsy woman would take him into a forest teeming with magical fairies, the voice of a king would send him climbing up castle walls to fight dragons. I viewed him like a super hero who took on various personas because of his supernatural gifts.
Sitting in Raymond’s drab living room, listening to him describe his “voices” and boast of his library’s worth of written literature, I was struck by a hazy out-of-body experience in which I suddenly was able to see Raymond in an entirely different light; a crevice of doubt cracked open a flood of skepticism and my cheeks grew hot as I formed the question in my mind, What if Raymond is schizophrenic?
Suddenly everything he had said felt questionable to me—his thousand voices were just hallucinations, and the exciting mystery surrounding his mission wasn’t fun folklore; it was genuine, life-affecting mental illness. Who I had idealized into a noble hero may actually be a struggling writer with personality disorders. Had my grandma totally misrepresented him all these years?
Then I remembered having read a few articles that claimed mental illness was often linked to imagination. Perhaps Raymond was the “real life” shade of fairy tales; magic existed, but it rode the cusp of creativity and insanity.
“Mr. Johnson,” I said, slowly. “Could you tell me more about the books you say you’ve written?”
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