I know better than risking the mall, the Salvation Army Santa’s bucket near the bus stop, but they’ve got a two-for-one on frozen pizzas at the E-Z-Mart, and I’ve been craving pepperoni all week.
Santa’s jingling coins follow me into the store, but I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams…blares overhead and soon enough I join the long line of paunchy, middle-aged men and wonder how many have a Christine who left when the ruts cratered.
I unzip my parka, press the frozen pizzas against my cheek and try to figure out what’s making the hum I’m thankful for because it distracts me from the sound that drove Christine away, the slot machines throbbing in my temple.
One day she went to her mother’s and never came back, claimed the rows of rolled quarters and dimes I hid in the sock drawer suffocated her, six of which, through the pocket of my sweats, I press into my thigh.
The man ahead of me unwinding his scarf, tugs the toque from his bald head, and the hum becomes a buzz.
He turns to me, points to his ear, says, “The buzzing bothering you? Just trying to relieve the tinnitus.”
My eyes must plead “yes” because he replaces the toque and the buzz fades to a hum, but then my slots go wild.
I spot the humming man near the Salvation Army Santa, get in line next to him and count change for the bus.
He smiles and says, “Money concerns, hey?”
I raise my eyebrows. “You can hear my sound?”
“Clanking coins. Sort of like a slot machine. Just like you’re picking up on my skeeter.” He points at his ear.
Tears sting the back of my nose—Christine thought I was crazy, the doctor said it was stress, but this stranger hears it too.
He leans towards me, pulls off the toque and says, “Go ahead. Take a closer look.”
A tiny mosquito is poised at the entrance to his ear. “Is it real?”
He chuckles .“Tattoo—she did a great job inking.”
Coins cascade like a waterfall.
He winks. “Best investment I’ve ever made. Not sure how it works, but this skeeter releases some of the noise from inside my head.” He hands me a business card, says, “Tell her Frank sent you for noise relief.” He puts his toque back on. “Far as I can figure, it’s people like us who hear noises in our heads who’s sensitive to the sounds in others’ heads. Right now, your coins are driving me mad!”
As the bus pulls up, he waves farewell, tosses his bus fare into Santa’s bucket and laughs when the slot machine strikes a jackpot.
On the bus, I doodle a stack of coins on the back of Jaina’s Tattoo Parlour. Instead of ignoring the ticking clock, I try to pinpoint the toque that muffles it.