Vox: a novel - Part 1

Part 1

Vox: a novel.

Nicholson Baker.

Nicholson Baker was born in 1957. He is the author of The Mezzanine (1988), Room Temperature (1990), U and I (1991), Vox (1992), and The Fermata (1994). He has written for The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. He is married with two children.


"What are you wearing?" he asked.

She said, "I'm wearing a white shirt with little stars, green and black stars, on it, and black pants, and socks the color of the green stars, and a pair of black sneakers I got for nine dollars."

"What are you doing?"

"I'm lying on my bed, which is made. That's an unusual thing. I made my bed this morning. A few months ago my mother gave me a chenille bedspread, exactly the kind we used to have, and I felt bad that it was still folded up unused and this morning I finally made the bed with it."

"I don't know what chenille is," he said. "It's some kind of silky material?"

"No, it's cotton. Cotton chenille. It's got those little tufts, in conventional patterns. Like in bed-and-breakfasts."

"Oh oh oh, the patterns of tufts. I'm relieved."

"Why?" she asked.

"Silk is somehow ... you think of ads for escort services where the type is set in fake-o eighteenth-century script-For the Discriminating Gentleman-that kind of thing. Or Deliques Intimates, you know that catalog?"

"I get one about every week."

"Right, a deluge. Lace filigree, Aubrey Beardsley, no thank you. All I can think of is, ma'am, those silk tap pants you've got on are going to stain."

"You're right about that," she said. "Someone gave me this exotic chemisey thing, not from Deliques but the same idea, silk with lace. I get quite ... I get very moist when I'm aroused, it's almost embarra.s.sing actually. So this chemisey thing got soaked. He said, the person who bought it for me said, *So what, throw it away, use it once.' But I don't know, I thought I might want to wear it again. It's really nice to wear silk, you know. So I took it to the dry cleaners. I didn't mention it specifically, I bunched it in with a lot of work clothes. It came back with a little tag on it, with a little dancing man with a tragic expression, wearing a hat, who says, you know, *Sorry! We did everything we could, we took extraordinary measures, but the stains on this garment could not come out!' I took a look at it, and it was very odd, there were these five dot stains on it, little ovals, not down where I'd been wet, but higher up, on the front."


"And the guy who gave it to me had not come on me. He came elsewhere-that much I was sure of. So my theory is that someone at the dry cleaners ..."

"No! Do you still give them your business?"

"Well, they're convenient."

"Where do you live?"

"In an eastern city."

"Oh. I live in a western city."

"How nice."

"It is nice," he said. "From my window I can see a streetlight with lots of spike holes in it, from utility workers-I mean a wooden telephone pole with a streetlight on it-"

"Of course."

"And a few houses. The streetlight is photo-activated, and watching it come on is really one of the most beautiful things."

"What time is it there?"

"Um-six-twelve," he said.

"Is it dark there yet?"

"No. Is it there?"

"Not completely," she said. "It doesn't feel really dark to me until the little lights on my stereo receiver are the brightest things in the room. That's not strictly true, but it sounds good, don't you think? What hand are you holding the phone with?"

"My left," he said.

"What are you doing with your right hand?"

"My right hand is, at the moment, my fingers are resting in the soil of a potted plant somebody gave me, that isn't doing too well. I'm sort of moving my fingers in the soil."

"What kind of a plant?"

"I can't remember," he said. "The soil has several round polished stones stuck in it. Oh wait, here's the tag. No, that's just the price tag. An anonymous mystery plant."

"You haven't told me what you're wearing," she said.

"I am wearing ... I'm wearing, well, a bathrobe, and flip-flops with blue soles and red holder-onners. I'm new to flip-flops-I mean since moving out here. They're good in the morning for waking up. On weekends I put them on and I walk down to the corner and buy the paper, and the feeling of that thong right in the crotch of your toe-man, it pulls you together, it starts your day. It's like putting your feet in a bridle."

"Are you *into' feet?" she asked.

"No no no no no no no no. On women? No. They're neutral. They're about like elbows. In my own case, I do ..."


"Well, I do very often, when I'm about to come, I seem to like to rise up on the b.a.l.l.s of my feet. It's something about the tension of all the leg muscles and the, you know, the a.s.s muscles, it puts all the nerves in communication, it's as if I'm coming with my legs. On the other hand, when I do it I sometimes feel like some kind of high school teacher, bouncing on his heels, or like some kind of demagogue, rising up on tiptoe and roaring out something about destiny."

"And then, at the very top of your releve, you come into a tissue," she said.


"The things we do for love. I knew this person, a doctor, who once told me that he liked to hyperventilate when he was masturbating, like a puppy. He got very scientific about it. He said that hyperventilating decreases the ionized calcium in the blood, alters neural conductivity, does this, does that. I tried it once. He said when you're almost there, after panting and panting, he-a-he-a-he-a, you're supposed to do this thing called a Valsalva, which is where you take a breath and you clamp your throat shut and push hard, and if you do it right, you're supposed to have a mind-blowing o.r.g.a.s.m-tingling extremities, tingling roots of your hair, tingling teeth, I don't know, the whole business. I didn't have much success with the technique, but he was this huge man, huge coa.r.s.e beard, huge arms, he loved large meatball subs, with that orange grease-and he was so big and so innocent and actually quite shy that the idea of him gasping-"

"His eyes squinted shut."

"Right, hunched over his male organ, though I have to say I was never quite able to picture his male organ, but the idea of him intentionally, deliberately gasping and swallowing was enough to help me toward a moment or two of pleasure myself."

"Ooo. On that very bed?"

"On this very bed."

"But without the chenille bedspread."

"Without the chenille bedspread, which I notice is leaving little white pieces of fluff on my pants, mm, mm, mm, get off, you. You see, a pretentiously s.e.xy silk bedspread from Deliques would have been more practical after all."

"Well, right, no, I can see that the things in Deliques might be s.e.xy," he said. "Garters and all that. They don't do much for me-in fact, the whole Victorian flavor of a certain kind of smirky kinkiness puts me off-but still, I have to admit that when the catalogs started coming, week after week, early fall, midfall, late fall, this persistent gush of half-dressed women flowing toward me in the mail, on such expensive paper, with the bee-stung lips and all that, it did start to interest me."

"Ah, now you're admitting it," she said. "The male models are quite good-looking, too."

"Well, but still for me it wasn't the lace hemi-demi-camisoles or any of that. I'll tell you what it was, in fact. It was this one picture of a woman wearing a loose green shirt, lying on her back, with her legs in the air, crossed at the ankles, wearing a pair of tights. Not black tights. I was, I was absolutely entranced by this picture. I remember coming home from work and sitting at the kitchen table, studying this picture for about ... ten minutes, reading the little description of the tights, looking at the picture again, reading, looking. She had very long legs. Now, did I have anybody I could buy these tights for? No, not really. Not at that moment. They were made of a certain kind of st.i.tch, not chenille, not chenille. Pointelle! She was wearing these beigey-green pointelle tights. See, to me the word *tights' is much more exciting than just *stockings.' Anyway I went into the living room and put the phone on the floor, and then I lay down on the floor next to the phone and I just studied this shot, went through the rest of the catalog, but back to this one picture again, until my arms started to get tired from holding the pages in the air, and I put the catalog facedown on my chest, and I went into a state of pure bliss, rolling my head back and forth on the rug. If you roll your head back and forth on the floor it usually increases any feeling of awe or wonder that you've got going. But no tingling of the extremities, unfortunately."


"And I don't eat lots of meatball subs. I mean I do enjoy a meatball sub occasionally, with mushrooms-I just want to differentiate myself from, you know ..."

"Oh don't worry about that," she said. "Your accent is very different from his, your voice is quite ... compelling."

"I'm glad to hear that. I was nervous when I called. My temperature dropped about fifteen degrees as I was deciding to dial the number."

"Really. Where did you see the ad?"

"Ah, a men's magazine."

"Which one?" she asked.

"This is oddly embarra.s.sing. Juggs. Juggs magazine. Where did you see the ad?"

There was a pause. "Forum."

"What does your ad say?" he asked.

"Let me see," she said. "There's a line drawing of a man and a woman, each holding a telephone, and the headline is ANYTIME AT ALL. I liked the drawing."

"I've seen that one," he said. "That's very different from my ad. My ad has a color shot of a woman with a phone cord wrapped around her leg and one arm kind of covering her b.r.e.a.s.t.s, and the headline over the phone number is, MAKE IT HAPPEN. But there is something intangibly cla.s.sier about this ad than the other ads, something about the layout and the type that the phone number is in, despite the usual woman-plus-phone image, and I thought that maybe it might attract a different sort of caller. Although, boy, that flurry of a.s.sholic horniness from the men on the line when you first spoke was not exactly cuc.u.mber sandwich conversation. That one guy that kept interrupting-*You like to sock on a big caulk?' *How big and brown are your nips?' But then, I suppose we aren't calling for cuc.u.mber sandwich conversation."

"I wouldn't object-cuc.u.mber away. But I guess not. Anyhow, here we are, *one on one,' as they say, in the famous fiber-optical *back room.' "

"True enough."

"So go on," she said. "You were telling me how you were on the Floor rolling your head back and forth?"

"Oh, right. Well, I was on the floor with the catalog facedown on my chest, entranced by those tights, and a conception, this conception of thrilling wrongness, took shape in my brain stem. I had a vision of myself jerking off while I ordered that pair of tights, specifically the vision was of, of, of ..."


"Of being in the bathtub, but on the phone with the order-taker from Deliques, who's got, you know, this nice innocent voice, a mistaken but lovable overfrizzed perm, a hint of tw.a.n.g, bland face, freshly laundered jeans, cute socks, but probably wearing a pair of Deliques finest *fusion panties' with a chevron of lace or something over her mound, which she's bought at the employee discount, while I'm in my bathtub, which is ridiculous since I never take baths, but I'm in my bathtub moving so carefully so she won't hear any aquatic splips or splaps and know that I've taken the portable phone into the bathroom and that I'm semi-submerged, and she says, *Let me check to be sure we have that in stock for you, sir,' and during the pause, I arch myself up out of the water and sort of point the phone at my Werner Heisenberg so she can see it somehow or get its vibes, and at the moment she says, *Yes, we do have the pointelle tights in faun,' I come, in perfect silence, making a Smurf grimace."

"That's awful."

"I know, but I don't know, I was there on the living-room floor. I don't often lie down there."

"Were you actually ... playing with yourself as you envisioned this?"

"Certainly not! I had one hand on the telephone, just toying with the number keys, teasing them, and the other hand was lying on the facedown catalog on my chest. Anyway, then I thought I would be embarra.s.sed to order a pair of tights for myself-maybe the order-taker would a.s.sume that I was a transs.e.xual, when in fact I am not a transs.e.xual at all, I'm a telephone c.l.i.tician."

"An obscene phone caller."

"Exactly. And I started to think of who I could order them for, and I thought of this woman at work, a very nice woman, some might say plain, but very nice, who once startled me and this other guy by telling a story out of the blue about some friends of hers who'd just had a large wedding at a museum during which some thieves backed a van up and loaded all the wedding gifts in and drove away."

"The wedding gifts were on display?" she asked.


"Ah, well, that was their mistake."

"Well, they were punished for it. Anyway, one of the gifts, this woman from work told us, was one of those s.e.x slings that I guess you bolt to a stud in the ceiling, so that the woman is ..."

"Yeah, I know," she said.

"And this woman from work had joked about the difficulty of trying to fence the stolen s.e.x sling, and the memory of her talking about this oddball device came back to me and I wanted to order the tights for her, so she'd come home from work one day, and she'd go, *Hey, what's this, a slim little package for me from Deliques?' She'd open it up and slip out this plastic packet with tights in it, and there's the order slip in her hand, and somehow I've convinced the order-taker that I don't want my name on the slip."

"Sure, sure."

"So she knows she's got a secret admirer. And there on the packing slip is the line of printout that says, all in abbreviations, 1 PR PTL TIGHTS, FN, SM, $12.95, and I just thought of her looking at the packing slip and thinking, Well, gee, I suppose I should at least see if they fit."

"Ah, but wait," she said. "No, what catches her eye, what catches her eye is ..."

"Tell me," he said.

"Is that on the packing slip, over the numeral one, for one pair of tights, is this check mark, in blunt pencil."

"That's right, there is."

"And she looks closely at that check mark, and she imagines a male hand making it, a surprisingly refined hand, because there has been a strike at the Deliques warehouse, and what's happened is that Deliques management has had to hire the male models from the catalog on an emergency basis to fill in for the normal pickers and packers, who are of course mostly middle-aged Laotian women. And they were right in the middle of a catalog shoot, all these male models, when the walkout took place, so they're wearing exactly what they were wearing on the shoot, which are the usual aubergine paisley boxer shorts, and Henri Rousseau bathrobes, and Erte pajamas, and that sort of thing, but there was no time for them to change, they had to be herded barefoot into this giant warehouse because the company was bombed with orders. April was their biggest month. So-one male model takes this woman's order slip, and studies it, looks at her name on it-what's her name?"


"Looks at her name, Jill Smith, and then takes the order slip and crumples it against the piece of horseradish in his foulard silk boxer shorts, and he hands it to the next male model, a gorgeous peasant with strange slitty nipples, who smooths it out, studies it, duh, Jill Smith, squeezes his a.s.scheeks together, and pa.s.ses it to the next guy, who smooths it out, studies it, bites one corner, and hands it to the next guy, and so on down this row of male models, each one broader-shouldered and sinewier-stomached than the last, until finally the order slip gets to the last guy, who's fallen asleep sitting on one tang of the forklift, a much slighter gentleman, with a beautiful throat with a softly pulsing jugular you just wanted to eat it looked so good, and of course wearing a green moire silk codpiece, pushed forward and upward by the one tang of the forklift. This male model rouses himself, smacks his lips sleepily, studies the slip of paper, gets in the forklift, and drives off, weaves off, toward the distant vault where they keep the pointelle tights."


"And he reaches the mountain of crates marked FAUN, and he slides the forklift into the highest pallet and lifts it off and, vvvvvvvv, brings it down, and he pries it open ..."

"Probably with his d.i.c.k."

"No, no, with his powerful refined hands," she said.