Songs of Tinnitus by W. T. Paterson


Eli couldn’t sleep. A doctor explained that tinnitus was to blame, a high-pitched ping that lived in his ears like a miniature bumblebee. He was told to listen to sounds while winding down. Not music. Sounds. Waves, rain, thunder. Things from nature to help kill the bee.

Eli settled on crickets.

Spotify had hundreds of albums worth of crickets for sleep, but Eli had always chosen a specific one. “Songs for Tinnitus.” The low, pulsing drones were a perfect counterbalance to the high-pitched shriek. He'd referred to it as “Songs of Tinnitus” until one sleepless night, listening to the repetition over and over, he heard faintly in the distance of the last track a woman begging for her life.

“Do you think this shit hurts our ears?” Frankie asked. He pulled away from the buzzsaw, long fuzzy sideburns and mop-top fashioned after the fab four. Sweat shone off of his chest, soaking through the pale green work jumpers of the factory. They were fabricating industrial pipes for Disney theme parks as an extension of the local 808 Union workers. Frankie wore plastic yellow ear shields and, when he looked at Eli, he froze.

“Yup,” Eli said, plastic ear shields hanging around his neck, unused.

“I’m sorry, dude. I didn’t mean…”

Eli shrugged and looked out of the warehouse entrance into the bright Florida day. The heat was intense, which weighed down his sleep-starved eyelids. Wrinkled marshes and stiff palm trees pulsed in the distance.

A young woman walked in wearing tan short-shorts and a black Mickey Mouse t-shirt, her brown hair pulled into two mouse-eared buns. She was heavyset with shoulders slouched forward, and her face looked like it had been pinched into an uneven scowl.

“Donna’s back,” Eli said, and slipped the yellow plastic over his ears.

“Christ. She doesn’t take a hint,” Frankie said, “Hey Cinderella’s ugly step-sister! If you’re here, you need to be working. No more hanging around.”

“Don’t be mean,” Eli said, watching Frankie’s lips.

“I wouldn’t be if they didn’t pay me seventy-seven cents to your dollar,” Donna shouted over the high-pitched wails of the heavy metal machinery.

“You do know that’s been debunked, right? It didn’t take into account job types, length worked, maternity leave, overtime and all that,” Frankie said, smirking.

“Yeah it did,” Donna said, crossing her arms. She walked up to Frankie and craned her neck so that they were nose to nose. “I don’t trust men.”

“Weren’t you kicked out of Disney World for having sex on Main Street with a dude during the fireworks show where everyone, including kids, could see?”

“Wrong again. I was grinding on him during 'When You Wish Upon a Star'. No penetration,” she said.

Eli shouldered between the two.

“Sorry,” Eli said, carrying a long silver pipe. “Didn’t mean to interrupt your mating ritual.”

“I’m not…I don’t…” Frankie said, blushing.

“He’s so not my type,” Donna scoffed. “I like men, not boys.”

“I like women, not beasts,” Frankie said.

“You don’t know how to handle a woman,” Donna said.

Eli walked the pipe to a fabrication station where the schematics were calling for the inner skeleton of a twelve-foot snail that cast members dressed as undersea creatures could safely ride during midday parades. He felt dizzy as he set the vice and powered on the industrial shaping machine, but dizzy was a way of life. The bee didn’t sleep, which meant Eli didn’t sleep. The only solace was in the sounds of crickets, which allowed the bee to land for a while. At least until, at the cusp of sleep, he began hearing the woman begging.

He tried listening to the track during full day wakefulness and found nothing, but when the sun was up, the world was alive with different types of sounds. Or maybe, he wondered, as high pressure boiling water started to bend the pipe, he was imagining the entire thing as a way to escape the mundane life of a union worker with contracts for the happiest place on earth.

But he’d heard the woman—her voice saying I’m sorry, I’m sorry, don’t do this ...

Donna stuck around for most of the afternoon. She sat atop a broken table saw, swinging her legs like a child. Frankie milled nearby.

“It’s like you’re the seven dwarves in here,” Donna said, and started singing Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go.

“That’s offensive to the people that have literally died in mining accidents,” Frankie said, throwing his oil-stained work gloves on the cement floor. He puffed up his chest and turned.

“I’m quoting a movie, jack-tard,” Donna said.

“Columbia. Portugal. Tennessee. Let’s ask those survivors if they enjoy movie quotes,” Frankie said.

“You are the definition of a snowflake.”

“Oh wow, look at me. I’m meeelting, I’m meeeelting,” Frankie mocked.

“That’s offensive to the people that have been burned at the stake. In this country, women were unfairly put to death in places like Salem and …”

“It’s a movie quote, Mini Moose,” Frankie snarled.

“Double standard much?” Donna said. “Typical male privilege in action.”

“I’m the one at work!”

Eli had seen this story before. He knew how it ended, so he put up with the bickering as a form of white noise until the lunch whistle blew, and Donna decided to wander back outside into the heat.