Agent of torment Fred Brookbank is recounting a conversation we shared earlier. As I spin interest from revulsion–a latter day Rumpelstiltskin, I am–Kelly will listen attentively to anything the man says, because she’s not really listening to anything. I know this because whenever Fred looks at me, I glance at Kelly and see her take advantage of Fred’s redirected attention to adjust something on her person. Straightening her blouse, shifting in her seat, or brushing her hair behind her ear–she wants to impress Fred. She’s doing it slowly, the way a lioness creeps forward only when her prey isn’t looking.
Meanwhile–and I need to get back to this point–Fred’s reciting words two octaves above his normal register.
And that’s the thing, see. It’s not his own voice, but his proxy voice; that dumbed down caricature of a voice that people use to fill what would otherwise be gaps in recounted dialogue. Most people use a proxy voice of some kind, typically to mock their siblings:
Victim: “Ow! Stop touching my neck!”
Assailant: “Dop duching by neck, yuh yuh yuh!”
That’s a good example of the hapless wean. There’s also the huffy voice of authority, the whine of the disinclined, and the dullard’s babble. Interpretations of these archetypical anti-heroes are present across cultures. I first realized that the proxy voice was universal on a trip to the Songam Art Gallery on an Incheon city bus a few years back. I passed the time listening to a conversation between two Korean women who were, by all outward appearances, well-adjusted and mature. Yet it was clear to me that they were talking about someone else–a third party who was not present–because their dialogue was punctuated in that very distinct way:
“Boeeo jeff sahm, ‘Chawn mahn yawng kyeh!‘ sum nee, dah kaseyo.”
There’s a right way to use the proxy voice so as not to denigrate the absent party. Yet, in the course of telling Kelly about this morning’s conversation, Fred Brookbank, a fully grown man in a suit, employs a high flutey tone for all my dialogue that, little to his knowledge, is like a siren’s song calling to my dormant reptilian thirst for carnage.
“Then jeff says, ‘I’m most certainly not cleaning that up!‘ you know, like he does.”
Since when do I say, “most certainly”? And though my voice does have a soft note to it, it does not usually summon images of helium-huffing priss. Fred has used that voice before–he uses that same voice for everyone. That’s why I loathe him, really. Fred is an oaf whose palate runs to crude parody over accurate or artful recitation.
Kelly is giggling at Fred’s caricature portrayal of me, and why not? If the man makes me sound like an anxious Lord Fauntleroy sock puppet, she has no stake in it. Oh, Kelly, you must be dispensed with. When Fred turns his back to write something on the whiteboard, I get Kelly’s attention and point at my teeth, and move my tongue as if I’m trying to dislodge a morsel of food. Duly horrified, Kelly gets to work immediately. Now she’ll spend the rest of the meeting paranoid, sucking at her teeth, and smiling that lower-teeth-only smile.
Meanwhile, Fred, having reached the conclusion of his cartoonish walk though history is looking to me for a response. In the corner of my eye I can see Kelly trying to be inconspicuous as she sucks at her lips like a lamprey.
“My father just died this morning,” I say.
Fred is silent, for perhaps the first time in his life. Tears come to my eyes, because this is too delicious for words, in fact.
“Oh no,” he says. “When did you…?” The man is struggling now, his joviality forgotten. “Jeff, you need to go home.”
And, in a final, gleeful act of self-destruction, I spring from my chair, do a jester’s jig, and say, “Jefffff! You need to go hoooome!” For my depiction I choose the hoarse windbag, and, I daresay, I think I’ve nailed it.
“Oh, you fuck!” Kelly says, glaring at me. Fred’s face is a confusion of emotions, as if he’s still trying to sort out a minor stroke. But the real beauty of my performance is that I’m absolutely beyond retribution this time, because my father really did die this morning.