Across the street from where I live, there’s a picturesque little house with a clay tile roof, dark wooden-framed facade, and gracefully arching eaves in the Japanese style. This is the home of the man I’ve come to call the Screamer.
When I imagine what he looks like, I picture a sinewy older gentleman in his underwear, his hair an unkempt spray of dirty white. In my imagination, the TV’s set to the History Channel, and he ashes into a plastic TV dinner tray that’s piled high with the crooked butts of dead cigarettes.
This is all just conjecture, of course. If it’s as cold in the Screamer’s house as it is in mine, he’s probably wearing something other than just his underwear or he’d be unconscious within minutes. Venturing into the unheated hinterlands of a typical Japanese home without the proper gear in winter is like jumping into the North Atlantic in swim trucks. You’d have to be very brave or very foolish.
And maybe he’s a beer drinker, I don’t know. Judging by the hours the Screamer keeps, he’s either retired or living on the generosity of the Japanese government. He has a cigarette voice, though. That much I’m sure of.
Once he’s begun, he usually holds forth for 15 or 20 minutes, though he’s flirted with the upper thirties. This happens I guess three or four times a day on average, sometimes more. The Screamer is not on a schedule. Occasionally he starts in at midday, other times he cranks it up at midafternoon or dinnertime. Often he’s punching in at two or three in the morning, then again literally at the crack of dawn, baying to bring the roof down. I keep earplugs beside my bed for just this reason. Whatever it’s about, there’s no point in both of us losing sleep over it.
This has been going on for five months.
When the Screamer is operating on all cylinders, I’m pretty sure everyone on my block can hear him. The difference between them and me is that they can presumably understand him. They don’t have to wonder. Me, I have no idea what he’s yelling about. It sounds important. Though almost anything sounds important when it’s delivered at the top of an invisible person’s lungs in a foreign language. For all I know he’s raving about the weather. But I don’t think so.
In between sessions, I sit in my one warm room and wonder about the Screamer. What could a person find so irritating that he’s got to yell about it at top volume for 15 minutes roughly every six hours? If the street construction crew from last fall were still out there, I could maybe understand. I’d probably be doing the same thing, having by now been driven completely insane by the machine that cuts through concrete and its evil operator. But those sadists moved on months ago to another unlucky neighborhood several blocks away.
I’ve considered that maybe it’s the talking trucks. These are a small fleet of vehicles outfitted with loudspeakers on their roofs that pack the wallop of air-raid sirens. The trucks are driven at a crawl through the neighborhood while blasting impossibly loud recordings of somebody speaking Japanese in the kind of monotone usually reserved for professors of statistics and automated messaging services. The movement of the vehicles creates a Doppler effect that gives the speeches, whatever they’re about, the eerie quality of messages from Satan, if Satan were a statistics professor.
The talking trucks come through several times a week. Each time I hear one coming, I’m tempted to splash ketchup on my ears and run out into the street, frantically waving the truck away, ketchup leaking from my ears down my neck. When the truck doesn’t turn around, I’d fall to the ground in front of it, writhing in agony. I figure it’s worth a shot.
Maybe, I’ve thought, he’s a dog person who’s been forced to care for a relation’s cat for an extended period. Cats will sometimes have that effect on people. Deliberately.
I’ve eliminated the possibility that he’s a rabid sports fan whose favorite team is having the worst season in its, or any other team’s, entire history. Likewise, I’ve dismissed theories involving repeatedly stubbed toes and misplaced keys. I’m at a loss to explain it. Is it a single thing that constantly pricks at him? Or is he set off by a whole catalogue of events that happen throughout the course of each day?
Out here where I live, the dense sprawl of the city’s bland industrial center gives way to residential suburbs speckled with rice fields. The streets are narrow, without sidewalks, and the tiny houses are packed together like teeth. In front of every home, no matter how small, there’s a pocket-sized Japanese garden instead of a yard, separated from the street and the houses to either side by a low concrete wall.
Their owners obsess over these little patches of land. Were a typical American family to find itself with the same amount of yard space, they’d set about filling it with a barbecue grill, bird-shit covered plastic deck chairs, an inflatable wading pool, and a crumbling dead Christmas tree skeleton.
But the Japanese person’s relationship to this space is different. For my neighbors, a garden is an idealized representation of the living world, a microcosm of the relationship between people and nature. The result is a little like a work of art: sculpted trees and shrubs, stone lanterns, rocks and gravel, a clutch of bamboo, a little stream or waterfall with a few koi kissing the surface of a tiny pond. Each element, from the trees to the rocks and even the moss on them, has been carefully selected and arranged just so, like a painting. It’s supposed to be a place for stillness and contemplation, a little Zen zone where one can let go of worries and concerns for a little while and think about how big the universe is and how little we, and our problems, are.
In front of the Screamer’s house, the low little wall is there, but it’s empty inside, just bare dirt and dead grass. It’s like a garden waiting to happen. But it never does.
Usually the Screamer sounds angry. Sometimes I can hear him pounding on the walls. His voice jumps with rage, like bursts from a mortar. It has the tone of someone who is, say, moments away from plunging a sharp instrument repeatedly through the ribs, neck and eyeballs of another person, then dragging the bleeding carcass to a trapdoor in the living room, beneath which is a dirt pit whose depths are piled with lye-covered, rotting remains. He always seemed a little different, I’d say when they interviewed me about him. But I never thought I was living next door to a serial killer.
Other times, there’s a different quality to his tirades. The anger’s there, but it’s tinged with desperation. These are the times when I worry, despite myself. I’ve often thought about asking one of my Japanese-speaking friends to listen in on one of the extended rants and provide a translation. But a big part of me is afraid of what I’d learn. Do I, as a close neighbor, have any responsibility for the Screamer? I’ve never seen anyone enter or leave his house. I’ve never even seen him. What would I do if suddenly, one day, the shouting stopped?
When I was a kid in junior high school, I was deeply unpopular. This is not surprising. I probably would have disliked me, too, had I had several classes with me and had to share a table at lunchtime. In class pictures from elementary school, I’m easily identifiable as the shaggy-haired kid in too-small, brown plaid pants with buck teeth and an overbite so severe I could have eaten an ear of corn, as they say where I’m from, through a chain link fence. Usually my picture is slightly blurred, as if I’d been moving as the photo was snapped, which I probably was.
I was an energetic kid. Actually, I was way beyond energetic. I had a condition that in those days doctors used to call “hyperactivity” or, when they really wanted to fuck with your parents’ heads, “MBD,” which stood for “minimal brain dysfunction.” Today they’d say I suffered from an acronymic euphemism known as ADHD. Simply put, I was hyper. To the kids at Harbor View Middle School, though, I was a spaz.