Sounds of Woe

Cora Lewis
Graphic with drawings of beds
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

You remind me of someone,” says the stranger at the bar. “Do you have any doppelgängers?”

“I’m singular,” I say.

“The freckles,” he replies.

That good night on the stoop, Simon asked me if I’d ever noticed how machines mostly make sounds of woe.

A subway had just passed nearly beneath us, grumbling through the grate.

“There’s a lot of grinding and screeching, it’s true,” I said.

“They’re all expressions of being worn out and tired from use.”

“Buses exhaling sighs all the time, kneeling.”

“Most machines just don’t have that broad a range of emotion.”

“There must be a machine with a spectrum of sound that can express joy,” I said.

“You know what a machine that has emotional range is called?”


“A musical instrument."

“It turns out I didn’t have any leadership qualities,” one square tells another, ahead of me in the deli line for our soups and wax-papered sandwiches.

I see my mother.

“I’m not trying to be difficult,” I tell her.

“I know, sweetheart,” she says, looking past me. “You never had to try.”

So I go uptown, because I'm already halfway to where he is.

He's scruff-faced, Simon, with that big coppery mess of hair, a new fleece sweater over his collared shirt and tie, saying he worked late, taking off his shoes.

We’re sitting on his familiar couch, the cushions grooved to our bodies.

I decline a beer, sip his, and, restless, say, “Take me to bed?”

“One sip,” he says, "a new record,” and kisses me. He stands, bends to where I am, hoists me over his shoulders. Then he carries me, fireman-style, to his room.

I meet my mother for lunch and a movie. As she pays, she tells me, “If you’re serious about your future, don’t waste your heart on anyone trivial.”

There’s a man at work
I chat with to break up the day. One afternoon he suggests we write poems as an exercise.

“Okay, haikus,” I G-chat. “5-7-5, by EOD.”

At day’s end, we go to the neighborhood bar we go to and exchange scraps of paper. His reads,

Oh god I wasn’t
prepared for you to believe
I meant what I said.

And how one judges triviality is a question I haven’t yet answered.

A long weekend. I visit my father, my little siblings. Today, my brother baited our sister near the henhouse. My father intervened.

“If you don’t want to be bullied, don’t react,” I heard him say. “When a bear approaches, make yourself neither big nor small.”

At our park date, Liz tells me a story. She was doing puzzles with her young daughter, Esther, and told her that when she was a kid, she also liked to do puzzles. Esther thought that over and asked, “When you were a kid, was I your mom?”

“You know what I like about a tyrant?” says the man in the bar, conjured from the dating app. “When it's time to burn a village, he burns a village.”

When it’s time to go: “We’re off — like a dirty shirt,” Esther says.

“We’re off like spoiled milk,” Liz answers.

Winter passes.
On the first day more gold than grey, a painter I know texts me to come to the botanical gardens with him. I’m inside some work.

“The next first perfect spring day is yours,” I write back.

So I start things up with the painter.

“Oh, man,” I say, quietly, waking beside him in the morning.

Then, so this won’t be misinterpreted: “In a good way."

His eyes squint over at me, from the ceiling they’d been open to, to determine if this is true.

“I’m not trying to be difficult,” I tell her.

“I know, sweetheart,” she says, looking past me. “You never had to try.”

“Like the start of an ode,” I say. “O, man!”

“O, woman,” he says.

“The postcoital poem.”

“What about the coital poem,” he says, reaching over.

“That would just be a series of ‘O’s,’” I say, inside his arms.

My mother always told me, if not for modern medicine, she would’ve been “one of those women in the graveyard.” One who died in childbirth, she meant.

At the hospital, the day she had me, she was sitting up, playing cards, while the nurses called in other nurses to see this unlikely woman, my mother, being pumped full of ungodly quantities of drugs to induce labor, and who remained unmoved.

“Any aces?” she was saying to my father.

“The graveyard,” she was saying, in the future.

I meet up again with the painter.

“You don’t open your mouth when you kiss me,” he asks, as we collapse onto the pull-out bed in his studio.

“What else do you want me to do,” I say.

“What a question.”

Now my little brother is reading Peanuts comics, and my little sister asks if he would read one aloud, to which he answers yes.

Then: panic. Her lip trembles, like a cartoon kid, and her eyes fill with shine, and she begins to speak quickly and loudly.

"But don't, but don't, don't, don't just read one that's really short and has hardly, hardly, hardly any words at all like you sometimes do!" she says.

We avoid the calamity, but the outlines of her life sharpen in my vision.

I am having dinner
with my mother.

“Why not?” she is saying. “Why not aim for greatness?”

“Definitely, Mom,” I say. “You should.”

“Oh no, I meant for you,” she laughs.

“Simon, these are my parents,” I said, the one time I introduced them to him.

“So you didn’t make them up,” he said.

We made her up,” said my father, mostly to himself. I caught my mother hear him, her eyes changing for the better.

“I agree to disagree,” asserts the well-composed woman at the dinner, and I’m on her side.

“Can she do that?” her opponent asks the table, incredulous. “Unilaterally?”

“Out like a light,” Liz is saying, putting her daughter to bed.

“Out like three strikes,” says Esther.

Now my father’s trees bend in the curve of the wine glasses as I set the table on the deck. He approaches, and I ask if he remembers what this time was like for him.

“My twenties?” my father says. “This is how I remember my twenties.”

He takes off his glasses, closes his eyes, stretches his arms out, and flails.

Cora Lewis is a writer and reporter based in St. Louis. Her fiction has appeared in Epiphany and her nonfiction in BuzzFeed News, among other outlets. She received her BA from Yale University and her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis.
Originally published:
July 26, 2021


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