Robert Boucheron

Audible Cities


Situated deep in the Allegheny Mountains, Hushington shuns the spotlight, slips under the radar, and evades the camcorder. Unlike raucous ports and boastful cities, it does not have a slogan, a nickname, a waltz, a catchy tune, or a tower equipped with a broadcast antenna. An unincorporated statistical area, Hushington lacks even a zip code. It does have a newspaper. The Account-Ledger reports the news without comment under sober headlines. No shocking secrets, calls to action, or shrill accusations.

As a matter of fact, Hushington lies in the Quiet Zone. In 1958, the Federal Communications Commission created this square of roughly one hundred miles on a side to protect the radio telescopes at Green Bank and Sugar Grove, West Virginia. In Hushington, you cannot use a cell phone, communicate via satellite, launch a drone, listen to the radio, watch traditional television, or save an important digital file to the cloud.

Streets are tranquil and traffic is light. Car horns are muted, brakes never squeal, and vehicles are for the most part electric. Municipal buses, sanitation trucks, police cruisers, and ambulances flit through the streets with a barely audible swish. Sirens are prohibited. The bell tolls for no one, not even thee. 

The wind sighs and moans. Rain makes a light pitter-patter. Thunder is a low rumble. Even wildlife keeps the lid on. Songbirds twitter, doves mourn in the swaying pines, and crickets gently trill in corners. Dogs that bark, yip, and growl in menace are banned, though a loophole allows a breed of Malamute.

Citizens are soft-spoken. In a dialect rich in unvoiced consonants and slurred sibilants, they rarely talk above a whisper. Anything more than sotto voce grates on the ear of a Hushingtonian. They croon their babies to sleep with a lullaby, but in church they merely hum a hymn. Full-throated is frowned on. The organ is absent from houses of worship, which may have a spinet or a pedal harmonium with its reedy wheeze, or a harp in the slender fingers of an angel, a girl of fifteen. Sermons are brief, no more than a gloss on the text. Children in school must raise their hands to talk. They are constantly reminded to think before they open their mouths, and then they must get to the point. Public meetings end early, as nobody wants to take the microphone. The mayor stands at the lectern, mumbles for a minute, and issues a written statement. 

In the course of everyday life, people wave hello or shake their heads for a simple yes or no. For longer communications, they resort to informal sign language. The Hushington palm, like the Gallic shrug, is an eloquent gesture that recalls the Zen koan of the sound of one hand clapping. Raise a hand with the fingers splayed and turn it front to back with a flick of the wrist. The gesture can express a range of meanings—amusement, doubt, and curt dismissal. To avoid an awkward misunderstanding, the visitor should refrain from using it.

In Hushington, folks are good listeners. They catch your drift in the first few words, nod in sympathy, and murmur unintelligible sounds. Those who know each other well, which is practically everyone, finish each other’s sentences. They understand body language, converse with pets and houseplants, and commune with nature. Older persons tell grandchildren they can read minds, though honor prevents them from telling secrets. More than one ambitious young person has gone on to become a psychotherapist, licensed psychological counsellor, or fortune teller.

The hearing aid factory is the largest employer, with a modern plant on the outskirts of town.  The School for the Deaf is a public institution that admits state residents and teaches them to function in the audible world. Some students work part-time at the hearing aid factory. Apart from these, enterprise is limited and sales are slack. No store manager drums up business. No service provider toots their own horn.

Warm springs in the area have provided relaxation and modest health benefits to visitors since the early nineteenth century. The Allegheny Spa, while less famous than the Homestead, Hot Springs, and White Sulphur Springs, is a low-key way to while away the summer. Visitors read fat novels on the veranda, take solitary walks, and doze in hammocks in the shade of weeping willows. The silent auction is a popular annual social event.

People who suffer from harsh words, hypersensitivity to sound, and airborne electromagnetic radiation have found relief in Hushington. Research is ongoing, but they swear they feel better. Something in the mountain air, perhaps. Some visit to escape relentless social media, negative campaigns, preachers and pundits with agendas to push, and the propaganda that passes for news in the mainstream press. You can hear yourself think, they often remark. Meanwhile, the radio telescopes strain to pick up messages from far, far away.



Vocaville is the city of song. Here you hear folk tunes, favorite old hymns, salty sea shanties, patriotic marches, haunting melodies, arias excerpted from sacred oratorios, lullabies sweetly crooned at the cradle, and raucous camp ballads of multiple verses bawled from the back of the bus. Hawkers and pushcart vendors announce their merchandise in lilting rhymes, while ragged waifs on street corners race through popular songs. In the morning, people sing of unrequited love as they walk to work. In the evening, a guitar slung by a strap around his neck, a young man serenades a balcony, confident a young woman will appear and reply up an octave. All day long and everywhere you go, people sing low, and people sing out.

The Clinch Valley is where Vocaville abides, hidden away where the hills echo, the wind whistles, and swift streams burble and babble over stones. The Carter Family came from here a century ago, born and bred from the warblers, fiddlers, and strummers of strings. Babies in Vocaville are born with perfect pitch, and they drink in music with their mothers’ milk. They sing before they talk and dance before they walk—a brisk two-step, Virginia Reel, or the rustic style called clogging. Before they start school, children already learn by heart the words and tunes to dozens of songs, including “In the Gloaming” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” They know by instinct how to shape a phrase and draw out a note. The messa di voce, an advanced technique of bel canto opera, is second nature.

If you step out unprepared, in a fragile state of mind, open to suggestion and emotionally vulnerable, Vocaville can take you by surprise. It’s like being onstage in a Broadway musical, where people suddenly burst into song. Even if you can’t quite catch the words, they grab you by the throat and bring tears to your eyes. At the top of their lungs, people fall in love. They pledge their hearts forever, they rage against implacable fate, they melt with tenderness over a child, they vow revenge on an evil foe, and they do it to the beat, on pitch, and with feeling.

Apart from making music, nothing much is happening. The textile mill shut decades ago, tobacco ruined the bottom land, and the coal mine closed when the seam petered out.  Hunting and fishing provide a livelihood, while traditional crafts like quilts and baskets keep nimble fingers busy. Sheep and goats are making a comeback in the green hills. So are their wool and cheese. Apple trees, sugar maples, and honeybees never went away. Life is sweet in Vocaville, the way it used to be. Cut off from the world, with no internet access, poor satellite reception, rusty narrow-gauge railroads, sagging bridges, and decomposing roads, free of the stress and strain of modern life, what else can people do but pour out their souls?

Professional musicians flock to Vocaville. They gather in bars, on porches, at bus stops, and under the broad leaves of a sycamore tree, where they sing for sheer pleasure. They mingle with the locals, and you can’t tell the difference, because the slickers dress down, without the big hair and the cowboy hats. Everybody blends, and they harmonize like all get-out. True artists don’t need amplifiers, woofers and tweeters. Electrical cables would only trip them up. They don’t need a banjo or a mandolin. Like a barbershop quartet, they stand in bunches and lean in close, wrap arms around shoulders, and wail that tune. 

Once in a while, the stars and celebrities meet by chance in a seedy, backroom, tumble-down wreck of a recording studio, where they try out new songs, rehearse old standards, tinker with the lyrics, and alter the tempo. Offstage, outside, in the fresh air and sunshine, away from the glare of electric lights and the screams of the audience, they relax and cut loose. They are free to mess around, to create something new. They are happy in the moment, and you hear it in the music, but only once and it’s gone forever.



Cacaphonepolis ranks supreme as the city of noise. Day and night, the clamor of trade and manufacturing never lets up, as plants and mills work round the clock. The rumble of traffic, the honking of horns, the screech of steel on steel, the wail of sirens, the roar of jet engines in the smoky sky, the rattle of a thousand motors and fans and suction pumps, these agitate each waking moment and disturb sleep. 

Mufflers, dampers, and baffles are not enough. Sealed windows fail to prevent infiltration. The pitiless city assaults your tender ears. It seeps into your battered body, and you vibrate sympathetically, against your will, with the throb and thump. Residents say they get used to it. Visitors flee with a headache, a cramp in their stomach, and hands held over their ears.

The weather is no help. Unwisely placed in a junction of valleys and mountain ranges where contrary masses of atmosphere collide, where storms are frequent and lighting often strikes, the city suffers from howling gales and thunderous rain more than half the year. Rivers flood and forests catch fire. Even on a good day, when banks of cloud oppress a fitful sun, the air trembles with menace. Crows are raucous, and starlings are coarse.

Cacaphonepolis recalls the fictional Coketown of Charles Dickens, more fouled by pollution and louder by decibels. More sinister than the dark Satanic mills of William Blake, its discord drowns all poetry. Even the memory of what is lost is lost. It is Birmingham, Chicago, and Pittsburgh rolled together. It is the dragon of diesel in the canyons of Manhattan, Niagara Falls in the streets of Buffalo.

Worse than all these, Cacaphonepolis resembles the City of Destruction in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the place the hero Christian flees. Ruled by Apollyon, the demon and destroyer, the city crushes those who stay. For what do they make in those dreadful factories of hammer and flame?

Weapons, fighter jets, rockets, bombs, and armored personnel carriers that clank and groan on terrible treads. The city supplies the military base that sticks in its side, like an arrowhead that cannot be pulled for fear of bleeding to death, like metal shards in a wound that never heals. Mechanical sounds of war augment the noise of the city. Rifle shots from the practice range are a constant staccato. Small explosions ripple through the streets like a seismic tremor. The horrible chop of helicopter blades announces a whirlwind.

If the shouts of soldiers and shrieks of victims are missing from the scene, citizens have a substitute ready. Harassed by the noise, their nerves on edge, the desperate people grumble and complain. Arguments erupt over trivial matters. Opinions clash on topics of no importance. In Cacaphonepolis, conversations tend toward shouting matches, if only to be heard. Lawyers dispute and wrangle in court. Their legal style is verbal combat, an unrelenting barrage of words, and woe to the out-of-town expert who pauses. They never stop to breathe, these fast talkers. High volume prevails in the city council chamber, where politics are a contact sport, and the counsellors like to mix it up. People shout down those with whom they disagree. They mock and taunt and threaten opponents with bodily harm.

The tempo of life matches the volume. To the constant racket of pistons, gears, pneumatic drills, and heavy equipment, people hurry. They run to catch a cab, and they urge on the driver like a jockey on horseback. They juice themselves, slurp coffee and tea, and toss down shots of liquid energy. On the fly, in transit, intent on the inner music of earbuds, or messages delivered to their pockets with a buzz, they no longer hear the city around them. If they stopped to listen, they might be tempted to stop altogether, and who wants to take that call?

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.