The timer must be going off, and Brad sipped his coffee before putting up his hand. The first take went fine, closing at sixteen-and-a-half minutes, I recited the text as closely as possible to the original. He stopped the recording and told me to go for a break. The water cooler was just down the hallway, so help yourself, he said. And if I needed a bite, I knew where the pantry was.
Berry, Temple, and Aster were removing their headphones and getting out of their workstations when I left the room. I was hungry. I got up late from a bad dream—a stranger stabbed and dying in a gutter telling me to call the police, but I didn’t do it. I just stood there watching her die. The alarm was past ringing and I clambered out of bed into day clothes, jeans and a tee, and left my place. The coffee Brad shared had been thick, and I was feeling the caffeine. I kept it down, kept the work on my throat, reading the script with the demanded ease and pace. Once or twice my voice snagged on a dry lining, but I hid it fast. The hitch would have gone on record and been detected when Temple went through the file. They’d order a retake if needed.
The break was thirty minutes and by the water cooler I imbibed six cone cups of liquid. A crane was hoisting a load of beams in the construction site outside the window and a month ago to break ice, I asked Aster what new thing they were erecting, but she was cool. Some glimmer guarding her eyes, don’t know, she said, crushing the cone and looking at me like I were an insect, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to talk. These weren’t colleagues keen on camaraderie though I heard them chat all the time, when I was out of the room, hushing as I turned the knob. The building was new yet, the units mostly empty, the pantry was two floors down spacious with overhead pipes and bench tables. I’d chosen a cabinet at the right end to store my needs, bread and crackers and in the fridge margarine and a package of cooked ham. During longer breaks I boiled water for noodles or scrambled an egg with a borrowed pan. Not once had I seen them in here but a few ladies from other units would drift in, sit with a laptop or papers, eat their sandwiches. I chomped down my bread and ham, drank more water, and headed back to the room for the next recording.
I came in last September. Already numb to the hanging video cams and the spook of hollowness in the hallways that seemed like a failed investment, but I had no one to talk to about it. A year ago community college had let me out with no directions and the city that’d looked so rich was really bone poor, filled with stickman businessmen dressed in frontier fashion who had no work to give out, or else they were unwilling; my applications felt like darts I was throwing into nowhere. Customer service rep, human resource specialist, management consultant all looked like rungs in a ladder but quickly turned into unreachable gold, my debt in the meantime growing legs, roots, that I went back part-timing at this ragged lounge, waitering and singing poor renditions of Tom Waits or Bowie. No one heard much when the place got busy that they didn’t need a professional, and once I stood in for an absent singer it all began.
Out of this noise I met Brad. One night he was the last to leave, not drunk, shaded by the red dimness in a lean puffer jacket he still wore when the seasons turned. He sat aloof at a table and when I went to him and said hey man, we got to close, it’s time, he obliged, no trouble, handing me a card I charged. That was that, I thought another night I closed shop and handed everything over to Salk, the manager. I headed out and ignored the clusters of regulars on the sidewalk for smokes and talk, past a few dark lone shapes idling for whatever reason not noticing one leaving the wall and sidling up till he said, “Heard you sing a good song.”
Yeah, I said. Just to humor the fellow and get to the trains, beat and stinking of sweat and not the first time I said thanks man, come back anytime. He was Brad, nameless then and I wondered if he were drunk but not showing it, walking briskly and expecting him to fall behind, recede into the amber haze of the street as the subway loomed. When he carried on quietly beside me I said, “Going home?” and there he surprised me. “Don’t think so. The sun’s coming up. I’ll hang out and head to work.”
He went on to say I had a good voice. I didn’t think anyone was listening I said, just horsing around when the manager requested, more now that the singer was gone for good. I was wary of overpraise when drunk women exclaimed I was amazing and asked where I learnt to sing, looking me up and down. My hair was black and I didn’t appear like the rest or even a singer but something more toy-like. As the subway viaduct loomed into view I was relieved and wanted to close the conversation and bid a polite goodnight, see you soon, next drink on me, other noncommittal talk that’d ash out by the morning.
All along he’d had his hands in his pockets. He drew out a card and said, “I know I sound frivolous. But I have a job for you. It’s not something I can discuss here. We’ll talk when you call. It’s worth your time, I promise.” He gave me a severe stare that I had to see him squarely and that was probably where it began, with a look glazed by hunger and stiffness reflecting my own that I called him some days later and told him my name, Daniel, and we met here, in this building. Feeling abandoned at first, maybe it was better to meet at some cafe when I heard the echoes of my footsteps in the hallways. He said he was pleased I showed up. The only other person in the room was Berry, a lanky man with a Smartwatch he kept toying with, nonchalant, arms and legs crossed and sitting beside Brad on a poly chair. The room was pretty bare and there were workstations and equipment lying around, speakers and computers, microphones and stands, a DIY studio with floor rugs and soundproof vinyl on the walls.
The look that drew me here wasn’t the same under fluorescence, business eyes striking no chord in me though I really came because I was desperate enough. More like he was ugly, not outside but maybe a face turned inside out or a bag emptied of contents like scissors or prongs and scalpels and nail files, pointed and sharp. He said he needed a male voice. He could have chosen any other guy, he wanted me to know, I was just a lounge man with nothing to my name, but he liked my voice. It had distance, no distinct qualities, watery, he said, in fact, and malleable. I asked him what I’d be singing and he said, “Do you speak any other language?”
Three, I told him, but I wasn’t fluent. I listed them, A, B, C, my mother’s languages and father’s, preparing for the raised eyebrows or backlashing praise that I was pretty good in English, other nonsense like that. He said nothing. What he wanted from me was simple. All I had to do was to rehearse, practice and read some scripts, nothing long, just short texts in the languages A, B, C, and I said wait a minute, how did he know I spoke them? He waved away my question and I began wondering who else knew and thought it was no big secret, anyone in the lounge he could have talked to including some regulars I was chums with, or I myself might have told him but forgotten it, the faces in the place changed so often and I repeated the answer as often as though it was pathetic joke or a magic trick to marvel at.
He named a sum that made my eyes pop and pleasure lit his face, lips. The work was light, he explained, three days per week and only a few hours, so long as the recordings went fine. I had to sign an agreement that nothing recorded could be divulged and a contract of two years. Then it was my turn to decide if this was something I wanted, so again I said wait a minute, what kind of scripts? Brad just chortled and I blurted, was I the only one? You ought to be smarter in the world, he said, but if it satisfied me to know they had languages to fill up, D, E, F, and so on. I went home rightly perplexed thinking this a scam, but a few nights later Brad showed up at the lounge and wanted an answer. What made me accept wasn’t just the money but that feeling of being wanted, that inescapable and delusive ego and fear of sinking deeper into the lounge never getting out, live by day, that same hungry look bothering me when we parted at the subway.
When the bad dreams began I’d been here a month, reading those short scripts I wasn’t at liberty to disclose. At home I practiced them parrot-like, listening to example recordings Brad had sent me home with, and we did a number of trials in the beginning measuring the pitch, intonation, rhythm, modulation with their gadgets, and I supposed Temple, the tech, knew how to alter my voice and turn it into someone else’s. Complete imitations and dubbings of some political or business figures, websites I checked out when I could afford my first laptop, closing the pages with trembling fingers. No guts to ask what was this all about, where these jobs came from, why couldn’t they use their own mouths, voices etc. They wouldn’t talk anyway, and I never met the other voice imitators Brad said he hired. Over time it wasn’t the fat checks but my role in it, my voice in another’s mouth, heard by whoever those texts were meant for that kept me quiet. Who was to say when it got down to it I wouldn’t be the one Brad scapegoated, the cops knocking on my door or getting calls at nights saying “You murderer!”? One night in my dreams the woman began pounding on my door, fists like stones and a bloated face behind the peephole, and I kept so still she thought nobody’s home. Then I was looking out the window at the sky-view until a pair of eyes moved inside the glass, blinking rapidly in my reflection, and I fell back.
On another night she came while I was doing a recording at my workstation. The text was accusing someone of treason, which I knew only in my dreams to be a pack of lies but not in the day. I didn’t notice her until she was next to me all naked, her face close to mine, pale, pretty, and so dead I swore I’d never seen her in my life, and she was saying hoarse into my ear, you liar, liar. I messed up the recording and began reading the script backwards, then Brad, Temple and Berry came and dragged her out of the room while Aster watched, cool as she always was in the day and I woke.
She came dead and alive every few nights, sometimes to stitch shut my lips and fill my dreams with pain, or just to kneel and beg pathetically. The wound on her chest, a gash of dried blood the size of an open mouth, was always in the same place, where I believe she was stabbed. Each time I did nothing but watch her die and by day she faded away and everything went back to normal, she was another stranger I didn’t know dead far away.
I postponed sleep as far as I could, and though I no longer worked at Salk’s, the income at Brad’s enough to keep me solvent, I went to the lounge every night to keep awake and the woman away. Salk made it easy for me to forget the echolalia I was suffering from, for money, losing myself in the rowdy crowd among the changing faces. One year, I thought, and six months of these nightmares would require stamina; of course, it wasn’t just that woman but countless others, men and kids and strangers sick or dead, visiting my dreams whenever I couldn’t hold out the sleep, pleading or angry with me somehow. They were fiercer than the woman and they just didn’t believe me when I told them I had nothing to do with this all, one night chasing me till I jumped off a plank into the sea and drowned. Every sleep was a danger, death, daylight my only relief going on parroting someone else the way Brad would have it, approve it. The dreams wouldn’t make any sense to him. It wouldn’t make sense to tell him I was dreaming on his behalf, just because I knew the languages A, B, C. Finally, I understood the hunger in that look, keeping me fed in the day with bread and ham in the pantry. The look came from the dead, from her, the hunger belonged to them.