Background Noise

By Jim Ray Daniels

 The TV was on. No one was watching it. My nephew Albert stood in front of me, having opened the door and let me in. His wife, Suzie—or Sooz, though I could not call her that, given the warmth and informal goodwill it implied—was on the phone, clearly telling somebody what-for. The nine-year-old twins, Bim and Jim, were chasing each other in a mad circle. Albert held up his hand. I thought he was going to shake mine, but he was giving an air-stiff-arm to the kids that stopped them quick enough to cause rug burns or sparks.


My grandfather had insisted on leaving the TV on for his fat dog Ralph when we picked him up for some family occasion at which his presence was required. Ralph had the benefit of a human dog’s life. My grandfather cooked him pancakes and hamburgers in his ancient cast-iron frying pan. He never even rinsed it out, so it always contained a toxic mix of burned food scraps and the yellow stink of old grease.

One day, stopping in to check on him, I found the heavy pan on the floor tilted up against the fridge, and I figured out that my grandfather finally could no longer lift the pan at age 95. He stood, head bowed, hands on hips, as I picked up the pan and put it back on the stove. I expected something from him—an explanation, some comment, I don’t know what, really—but he remained silent, his lips trembling slightly with what was unspoken. The dog looked at me soberly. Whatever had been in the dropped pan, Ralph had taken care of. Grandpa walked back into the living room, where he sunk into his ancient easy chair, leaning his head back against the stained antimacassar which may had not been washed since my grandmother had died ten years ago. Ralph dutifully followed him, plopping down at his feet with a heavy thud, as usual. 

I thought about mopping the sticky floor. I thought about scrubbing the pan with steel wool, or taking a sander to it to erase the accumulated residue, trying to recondition it, but I just kept thinking about the watery eyes of my grandfather and the clear eyes of the dog. I wondered if Ralph had eaten his last pancake. I felt like the heavy thudded clang of that pan on the floor was a sign of something, and it was. Within a month, my grandfather was dead.


Albert, his great grandson, took Ralph when Grandpa died and slimmed him down, and the dog lived five more years. Maybe Ralph had insisted that the TV be left on when he was here and it had just become a habit to leave it on. If he couldn’t have pancakes, at least he could still listen to the shrill, exaggerated TV sounds, either trying to sell something, or trying to get you to laugh, or scare you, or whatever. But as Ralph would tell you if he wasn’t a dog, you can’t smell or eat TV, so I’m not sure how much the TV did for him. 


My grandfather fed Ralph whatever he had, so Ralph ate a lot of meals-on-wheels. The kindly volunteer driver, a grandmother herself, remarked that my grandfather had quite an appetite. Ralph in turn kept my grandfather alive, if only forcing him to get up and let him out and in a few times a day. Good boy, Ralph. Making it to 95 on your own, quite an accomplishment for anyone I think. My own father wasn’t going to make it that far.


I hadn’t been such a great grandson or uncle. In French, brother-in-law literally means handsome brother. If only it were that easy to move into being handsome. My sister Jean was Albert’s mother. If I’d been the age I am now when my grandfather was dying, I might have been more empathetic and caring. I missed seeing him before he died because I had a softball game to play in that night that I refused to skip. My mother said, “If you want to say goodbye to him, you’d better come now.”

We were in the playoffs. One of my teammates had begged off on his 25th wedding anniversary to be there. My grandfather, a big baseball fan who remembered Ty Cobb, would have wanted me to go to my game, I told my family. I’ve come to hate anyone who claims to know what a dead person would have wanted. It’s like pretending to know what a dog is thinking, which maybe I just did.


Albert, Suzie, and their twins Bonnie and Jim. No one turned down the sound. Bim was short for Bonnie somehow, and Jim of course was James. at nine, they were still mostly polite or maybe they’d already written off their serious great-uncle who only made cameo appearances during the holidays.

I first sat on the couch, then quickly shifted over to the lazyboy chair on the side to avoid the glare of the enormous TV screen. It was like they always had company, the people on the screen nearly as big as Bim and Jim. There are a lot of names that end in “im”. I hope Bim doesn’t marry a Tim and Jim marry a Kim.

“What are you watching?” I asked.

“Nothing special,” Suzie said. Albert nodded as if I’d asked a question that did not deserve a reply. The kids ignored the question, though they were now staring vacantly at the screen. Cartoon Network, it appeared, and somebody needed to calm down and become human again. Maybe me.

I had never been in their house before. I lived seven hours away in deep, dark Indiana. I work in Elkhart, the RV capital of the world, at Jay Sport Camping Trailers. Jay’s real name was James.


We made small talk, just like I’m making small talk now. Stalling for time. 

“Uncle Carl, why are you here?” Suzie asked finally.

“Can someone please get me a glass of water?” I asked the people on TV,

“Bim, can you get your uncle some water?” Suzie said. She squeezed the remote in her hand. One of them, anyway.

“Great uncle,” I said. “I’m your great uncle.” I never got tired of that joke.

“Hmmph,” Bim said, not quite cute anymore, and stomped off into the kitchen, which had been redone, as is the initiation rite for anyone living in this particular suburb, apparently. Some of my old friends from high school lived nearby and had showed me their kitchen islands and peninsulas. Suburban tropical.


I drank my water. Cold, from one of those refrigerator water hookups that always break after a year or two.

“We’re going to move my dad into a home,” I said. “Nobody can handle him anymore. Even the aides who came in twice a day to get him up and put him to bed could no longer do either. Like Ralph, he was expanding into extra large. His wheelchair, a double wide. My father paid the bills and let it go on with Grandpa as long as he could. No room at the family inn for the guy who’d killed his brother and never told the secret, even to those who already knew it.

Or son. I should have mentioned. I have not been a very good son. Why Indiana? When the car jobs dried up, a trailer job seemed like the next best thing. Indiana was flat like lower Michigan. Crossing the border was hallucinatory, except the hallucinations speeded up in Michigan, as was the tradition of Michigan drivers, a slur in Indiana. “Michigan driver!” they shouted out their car windows at each other.

I met my first two wives in Indiana, and I hope to meet another one there before I get in line behind the old man on the lonely road of no return. I don’t believe I’ll meet Ralph there. 

All Dogs Go to Heaven was a cartoon that starred the voices of Bert Reynolds and Dom Deluise, both deceased. Am I showing my age?


We were planning to pay extra for our father to get a single room. If he ever stopped knowing who we were, we’d move him to a double. Or if his money ran out first, then we’d take what Medicare gives us.

“I love my father,” I said. “But I can’t lift him either.”

“You’re in Indiana,” Albert said, looking at me over his glasses as if he did not believe me, sizing me up like an actuary.

“You could lift him, Al,” I said. “Big guy like you.”

“You’re not suggesting,” Suzie said. 

“No, I’m not,” I interrupted. Al sold life insurance, which I didn’t know was still a thing, though I understand it’s kind of a tax shelter now. 

“But we could use your pickup truck and help moving. We’ve got to get him out of the house and into the home—isn’t that ironical, shouldn’t it be out of the home and into the house?—and get rid of at least half his stuff. We’ll have to sell the house. I’m using up my vacation to come up and do this. He’s on a waiting list.”

The kids had disappeared. I had neglected to bring them bubble gum like I used to do. Their parents hated bubble gum. I, who will never have grandkids, had to spoil somebody, and that’s how my grandfather spoiled me, by giving me things my parents did not want me to have—soda pop, candy, potato chips, cheap plastic toys from the dime store—cowboys, Indians, and soldiers. And how my grandfather spoiled Ralph.

Since Ralph died, Albert and Suzie had not gotten another dog. The kids did not even know about Ralph, like we did not know my grandparents had another son besides my father—that my father’d had a brother—until we were adults. “If we tell them about Ralph, they’ll want to get another dog,” Suzie said in her Suze voice. “No dog,” Albert affirmed.

Of course, the kids might whine about getting another dog, about how they’d missed out, but my father could not whine about getting another brother. The thick curtain of grief followed them around forever. My grandmother, quite frankly, did not seem to like my father at all. The more he did for her, the less she liked him. After she died, I think he took it out on Grandpa.

“He’s sitting over there now with that giant speaker next to his ear watching right-wing news shows and nodding, but he can’t even get up to make himself a sandwich anymore. He ‘lost’ the emergency help button we got him. The house smells worse than every nursing home me and your mother visited.” His mother, my sister Jean. I’d promised her I’d make this request in person. “He won’t listen to me,” she’d said. “He won’t say no to you,” she’d said. I’d never asked him for anything in my life, so I wasn’t sure where she’d gotten such confidence. I could have gone on forever, just like the TV, with excuses, but they really didn’t care. They had twin nine-year-olds.

Twins who were screaming at each other from somewhere in the back of the house. Big house, successful career. Remodeled kitchen. Kudos to Albert. What was I lacking that kept me from staying in love, or at least married? Both my exes still lived in Elkhart. I’ve heard that they’ve become friends, which I hope is a lie or at least an exaggeration.

Jean had borne the brunt, but she knew me and did not begrudge taking on the role of primary caregiver. Brunt. That’s a tough word. Begrudge. Growing up, I had spent a lot of nights in our tiny box of a house eating my dinner alone in the tiny kitchen that had never been remodeled, exiled by my father, who had no brother, but had a son. 

Suzie got up to check on the kids. I could hear her firm voice. Each kid was sent their own rooms to cool down, but Suzie did not come back. She was probably in the bathroom sighing, waiting for me to leave. It was just me, Albert, and the TV. Albert juggled one of the remotes. He changed the channel to one of the all-sports networks. Soccer players were playing volleyball with their feet. I’d seen it before. The novelty wears off.

“Give me a date,” Albert said. “Give me a date, and I’ll be there. Not with bells on, but I’ll be there.”

Bells on. He had added a lot of insurance salesmen quirks to his vocabulary, as if he’d learned English from a David Mamet character. 

I do quality control on the trailers. I go camping on Lake Michigan, on the tiny wedge of it that Indiana owns. Indiana Dunes—it’s almost beautiful. I was close enough to sneeze in Elkhart and be heard in Michigan, but it was not Michigan. In self-imposed exile from the state I loved. 

Why had I never asked my grandfather about his dead son? Why were we passing down the silence from dog to dog?

To get to Chicago, I had to drive through Gary, Indiana, which, despite the Music Man, was better known as one of the top ten armpits of America, one of the many little Detroits. All my compasses tilted back to Detroit, the original armpit, my father’s armpit he would wrestle me into in a playfully violent way until I outgrew him.


“I’ll get you a date,” I said, and stood up. It almost sounded like a threat. I was living alone in Elkhart, Indiana. Couldn’t I find a way to move my father down there, or retire early or something and move back to the Motor City? I was 55. Double nickel. A nickel for your thoughts. Hey Dad, what’s on TV? 

I grabbed one of the remotes and pushed the off button, but nothing happened. “I’ll get you a date.” 

A romantic day spent discarding family treasures and deciding what clothes he might want to die in. My father, to be fair, had been the one to help everybody else die—his parents, his aunts, two cousins. Was he making up for not being there when his brother died of a burst appendix in high school? I hadn’t asked him about my dead uncle either.

He’d handled all their paperwork and emptied their houses, but now it was his turn.

“Now, it’s my turn,” my father said. He’d turned his TV off to tell me.

About the Author: Jim Ray Daniels is the author of six collections of short fiction, including, most recently, The Perp Walk, Michigan State University Press, 2019. His fiction awards include  a Michigan Notable Book prize,  finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize, and awards from the Midwest Book Awards, the Independent Booksellers Association, and the Foreword INDIE Book Awards. He currently teaches in the Alma College low-residency MFA program and lives in Pittsburgh.