• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
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  • 13. Background Music

    By Alex Rose

    Alex Rose is a co-founder of the innovative Hotel St. George Press, and the author of the mesmerizing collection The Musical Illusionist. This new story slips gracefully through a host of physical and emotional landscapes, evoking the unease of a man with exquisite sensitivity to the sounds and contours of our uncomfortable world.

    It was getting worse. Several times a week now, Marty Perchec found himself suddenly unmoored. He’d be standing in the checkout line at Fairway and his hearing would go murky; he’d bend down to leash the dog and his mind would spin to a blur like an electron, weightless.

    He consulted a doctor, who looked in his ear and told him it wasn’t vertigo.

    “I hug parking meters,” explained Marty. “I spill yogurt.”

    “Anxiety.”

    “I sit down to piss.”

    “What I’m saying is, you’re hyperventilating without knowing it. The excess oxygen makes you lightheaded.”

    Had Marty not been offended by the implication that his disabling symptoms were merely “in his head,” as though in his luxurious boredom he had nothing better to do than fabricate yuppie dysfunctions, he might have connected this prognosis with the recurrent back spasms, the cold sweats, and the fact that he’d nearly passed out during a programming session a day earlier.

    He’d been previewing a track for three corpulent execs from a footwear company when his heart began to palpitate with such ferocity he thought he was having a stroke.

    “Listen to this,” he said, and swooned into the patch bay like a narcoleptic.

    Marty had taken his first job in commercial audio production directly after completing his masters in ethnomusicology. At Columbia, he’d hoped to do the kind of field work carried out in the early days of the discipline, when universities would fly researchers to the far reaches of the globe to study what they could before every last indigenous culture was eviscerated by missionaries. They’d learned to build organic instruments, notate exotic scales, transcribe irregular meters—all of which seemed wildly romantic, swashbuckling. But by the time Marty put himself on the job market, every reputable anthropology department had been subsumed by a new theoretical order whose chief concerns were reassessing presumed notions of ethnicity and modes of transgression rather than acquiring data.

    Frustrated and disillusioned, Marty took an entry level job in the private sector for a summer only to discover that commercial music publishing offered more direct access to traditional music than academia. Wellspring Media Services on Twenty-eighth and Park, a former subsidiary of Muzak, paid him a handsome salary to scan through vast archives of village chants, sacred incantations, and peasant songs without having to justify his intent with semiotic discursions. If a sushi restaurant hired him to compose a playlist, he was free to plunder the stacks from Bunraku to Kitaro.

    But now it was a decade later and what did he have to show for himself? The sushi had been eaten. The footwear had been sold. Shoppers were tranquilized. And so what? Normally, he could rely on a certain level of validation from work, however superficial—he’d always gotten a performative kick out of imagining what the clients thought as they watched him man the massive, vulcanized console, all those fancy buttons and dials, with the seasoned nonchalance of a bomber pilot, the dexterous poise of a crêpe chef. He’d also prided himself on his ability to deliver what people wanted: he could get in their heads, size them up. Simply by scrambling together a few observations—the obvious (age, sex, race) along with the less obvious (sense of humor, taste in ties)—he could produce a disconcertingly accurate musical phenotype for almost anyone. In his grander moments he fancied himself not only a master technician but a kind of sonic sculptor, shaping the flow and texture of aural atmospheres.

    Ever since his divorce two years prior, though, Marty had been consumed by a corrosive apathy. Not only was he less interested in his livelihood and in music in general, but it seemed the world had proportionately less use for him. How to find relevance in a product that aspired to transparency? If great musicians could “see through walls,” as Schoenberg had once declared with exultant bombast, great program designers could merely turn invisible.

    Occasionally, behind-the-scenes maestros like George Martin were granted craftsman-as-artiste status in the manner of Stradivarius, but never the arbiters of background music. In this sense, audio branding was like air traffic control, or campaign management—the kind of job whose handiwork was meant to evaporate in the process. The presentation covered its tracks. You were only successful if you’d made yourself disappear.

    As he aged, Marty found himself longing not for the active idleness of youth but for the vegetative idleness of senility—a time when he wouldn’t care that he didn’t care.

    The issue wasn’t necessarily a lack of company or companionship. He had a girlfriend—two of them, in fact—though neither quickened his pulse sufficient to stop screwing around. Indiscriminate dating was part of the lifestyle, absorbed into the bloodstream like prayer or television. It had become one of those apparently benign addictions that slowly engraved themselves into the larger armatures of the self—something that eluded the naked eye but which revealed itself when dissolved in acid or viewed from space.

    After his doctor’s appointment, Marty returned home and treated himself to a bath. He lowered himself in; blood rushed to his ankles, his knees, thighs. Hairs at the base of his neck stiffened and went limp in the nearly scalding water. The head of his penis floated to the surface, a dull pink buoy. He was just about to pop a Xanax when he received a call from his sister, Sharon.

    “Have you given any more thought to Maine?” she said.

    “To Maine?”

    “The property in Maine.” Her voice had the patronizing patience of a schoolteacher addressing a delinquent student.

    “Right.”

    In fact Marty had no recollection of this. When they’d spoken three days earlier, the anxiety medication had already acquainted itself with the vodka in his bloodstream.

    “So?” said Sharon.

    “I almost fainted at work yesterday.”

    She seemed not to have heard him.

    “You were going to get back to me about what to do with all the stuff,” she said.

    “What stuff?”

    “Jesus. The furniture. Whatever, all the stuff from the house.”

    Water lapped the sides of the tub.

    “Is there anything worth keeping?” he sighed. “A few geriatric armchairs, a wicker basket. A shitty barbeque.”

    “There’s Grandma’s silver. There’s Dad’s record collection, Mom’s paintings. There’s the sentimental stuff, all the beach glass, the jar of arrowheads. Remember the old arrowheads we used to find in the woods?”

    Through the blinds, the night sky was frothed in a confectionary cityglow.

    “I thought all that was shipped back when you sold the ranch.”

    “Nope, just dragged into the tin house.”

    “Why can’t it stay there?”

    “Are you drunk? We sold it. I told you this on Monday. The land on which the tin house sits is no longer ours. Are you getting this? The buyers are going to raze it.”

    The tin house was a small storage unit just upshore of the beachside ranch the family had spent their summers in, and represented the last holding of the Perchec estate. Marty’s sister had inherited it years ago, along with the neighboring six acres of dunes and woodlands, but had been reluctantly ceding portions to salivating developers by the lot. Trees were plowed, bogs filled, the ranch gutted. And while she never mentioned it outright, the tone Sharon took with Marty in recent years was sufficient proof that she resented him for not buying it himself—he certainly could have—thereby allowing the sole vestige of their childhood to be ravaged by nouveau riche vacationers.

    “Point is,” she said, “I’m on tour with the orchestra for the next month and Todd’s busy with the kids, so unless you’re okay with all that stuff getting dumped, you’ve got till Friday to retrieve it.”

    Marty sat in the bath long after he’d gotten off the phone, his ears ringing. He remembered how, as a very young kid, he had often toyed with aural curiosities, a sort of proto-masturbation. By folding his ears in a certain way—the helix drawn snugly into the auricle and sealed over by the lobe—he’d manage to envelop himself in the thick white wash of cranial harmonies and cochlear suction. This kind of intimate quiet had become so rare in his grown-up life here in blaring Manhattan that, when silences did come, they seemed a little precarious, like a hole covered by a rug.

    The next day at work he spent the morning with a perky, youngish consultant named Pam, whose face was dusted with foundation.

    “Can we hear the Lame Ducks track again?” she said, gesturing toward the sprawling board.

    Marty sipped from his coffee, nodded, and pretended to shuffle through the digital archive. In truth, there were only a few real controls—pitch, volume, sequence, channel, effect; the rest were just alternate ways of tweaking them. The decks were designed that way. Any one feature could be adjusted with ten different knobs, levers, or keystrokes, for the sole reason that the apparent complexity made clients feel like their astronomical bills were justified.

    This particular client represented a French-Algerian chain of beauty and hygiene outlets. They were trying to establish a chic, dolphin-safe “audio signature” for their forthcoming SoHo branch. Marty had been working for weeks to find the appropriate musical syncretism—pan-cultural earthiness with a dash of catwalk glamour—but was having troubling nailing the balance.

    He pressed play and leaned back into his Aeron chair. At an earlier point in his life, he would have found this particular mix somewhat embalmed—bloodless yet swollen, overprimped. Now it was just merchandise, no better or worse than a thousand other items in the catalogue.

    “Maybe if it were a bit warmer?” said the consultant.

    There were two adjectives clients used to describe the product they envisioned. The first was “warm,” and could be interpreted to mean virtually anything in the acoustic panoply—timbre, dynamic range, ambience, direction—but could just as easily describe the vague sensation of anemic pleasantness the business hoped to evoke in the consumer. The second was “punchy,” which, by contrast, almost always referred to the same specific property: compression. Adding compression meant turning down the louder levels of the mix and then cranking up the entire signal—the acoustic equivalent of italicizing every word in a sentence.

    “Better,” said Pam. “Really impactful.”

    Marty thought about Maine. Actually getting on a plane and flying up there was terrifically unappealing. Seeing his homeland all redressed and gentrified would be like watching a tribe of Pygmies succumb to Dianetics. Then again, spending the afternoon maxing out reverb levels on the Lame Ducks might imperil his already overtaxed nerves and induce a seizure. Plus, there was a chance that some of the stuff in the tin house was actually worth something. His father had been an avid collector of rare jazz and classical LPs for decades. Once, when working as a transcriptionist for the NBC studio orchestra, Perchec the elder had come across a crate of reel-to-reels from the ’30s—original recordings by the great Toscanini himself—that the network was dumping. He rehabilitated these and other treasures, 45s from junk shops, bins of two-inch from liquidated radio stations. Maybe Marty could finally find a use for them. Maybe license a few tracks to Wellspring, collect a finder’s fee.

    He finished the session, ate a light lunch, and told his secretary to cancel his appointments for the rest of the day.

    The flight to Portland was mercifully uneventful. Marty’s company had an ongoing relationship with the airline, one of the key benefits of which was that its employees were entitled to fly business class at economy class prices, sparing them the otherwise mandatory in-flight music their own company had been requisitioned to provide. The long medley was designed to guide passengers through a series of optimal moods—an up-tempo shuffle to distract people from the tedium of taxiing; a barbituric synth chorus to relieve the tension of post-takeoff turbulence, and so on. Not all businesses sought to cushion anxiety. Like the cavalry trumpets and attack drums of yore, music was still frequently employed to enhance existing conditions, to stimulate and augment. Theme parks blasted heavy metal for their roller coasters; posh department stores swathed their showrooms with Reggaeton.

    These were the two basic types of jobs—diversion and accentuation. It was exactly like makeup: Either you hid things or you brought them out. You concealed or you revealed.

    Being on his side of the fence for as long as Marty had, the discernment of musical quality had gradually been supplanted by the evaluation of utility: there was no good and bad per se, there were only bright, crisp, resonant, hollow, and broad. He couldn’t hate bland music any more than a textile artist could hate linoleum, or a perfumer could hate the smell of sweat. In the end, it all came down to applicability. John Cage was agreeable in a Chelsea gallery but gauche in the Internet café beneath it; Johnny Cash was gloriously mangy in a whiskey bar but self-conscious in a wine bar.

    Marty’s first memory of being cognizant of acoustic atmosphere occurred when he was twelve. He was walking to school on a spring morning when he felt a swift depression in his mood, almost exactly in the manner of a cloud suddenly blocking the warm sun. It was only moments later, when the gloominess passed and his pleasant spirits resumed, that he noticed the sound of twin lawn mowers being operated on opposite sides of the street, two neighbors trimming their front yards in tandem. Each emitted a pitch, one exactly a major third above the other. When the second mower had switched gears, the pitch dropped a half-step, creating an interval of a minor third; upshifting back reintroduced the major. That his discovery of the causal relationship between tones and sensations was not actually a discovery at all, but an obvious fact he’d until then simply overlooked, didn’t for a second stifle his elation. Sounds affected us in ways perhaps deeper than images, often when we weren’t even aware of them. What else were we unconsciously tuning out?

    A stewardess trucked a cart of drinks down the aisle, smiling the presidential smile of the American Service Professional. The sight of all that complimentary booze made Marty thirsty in a bad way. The little bottles of Seagram’s and Grey Goose, shining and clinking like jewelry. Ordinarily, a strong desire to drink this early in the day would have caused him some concern, would have reaffirmed the all-too-proximate possibility of a nervous breakdown. But something about being on a plane, untethered by earthly constraints like time and balance, rendered the thought more mischievous than destructive, like a matinee on a work day, or sex before dinner. At a certain altitude, one was granted immunity.

    It was nearly six before he arrived at the airport. He’d reserved a cheap van from a local rental agency, thinking an expensive car would be somehow inappropriate for the trip. (It was important for Marty to imagine his roots as being far humbler than they actually were and therefore important that he not gloat.)

    Though he had not been to the property in nearly eight years, the rather convoluted route remained perfectly intact in his head, the whole topology frozen to a synaptic mold. There’d been quite a bit of development, of course—a few more gas stations and convenience stores and a few less barns and cornfields—but the key vectors of the landscape were well-enough preserved.

    The van was sluggish and raspy. Purls of seabreeze whapped the windshield. He rolled down the windows, letting the brisk, dewy draft spill over him. The ancient route, the ancient smell. Rays of light strobed through the branches, a silvery blur in his periphery. His ears hadn’t yet unclogged, but he was sure he could hear the muffled surf through the woods.

    Soon the cement street gave way to a dirt road, and the road to a slender sandy path. The van lumbered squeaking over clumps and spiky sedges, branches raking across the roof, and Marty wondered if the thing would even make it the extra quarter mile to the property.

    The woods opened like a curtain to an expanse of twilit dunes. Long dorsal slopes rose and split, curving through rushes and bristly knolls. The trail looped a nest of embankments, the sand scalloped with last night’s rain. Towering over the dunes was the palace of the colonists, a bloated beachside fortress with a wrap-around cedar deck and broad, sun-dappled windows. It was difficult to believe that the house had once been a third that size, that beneath the gaudy additions was the split-level kit ranch of his youth. A butter-yellow Hummer sat in the driveway—a Hummer! Marty was conflicted. He wanted to be at once loud enough to stake his territory and quiet enough to disappear—as though by burying his head, ostrich-like, he could make the predators vanish.

    Beyond the McMansion was the old tin house, ramshackle and pathetic in contrast. He wasn’t sure if he was proud or ashamed. The corrugated roof looked inside-out, all its seams and creases exposed. A wooden deck fastened the house to the earth like a splint, the surrounding sand flecked with ashy barbeque cinders. Perhaps a sexier rental car would have lent credibility to the place, an air of intention.

    Marty parked in a swale of desiccated shrubs. The snakegrass was less reptilian than leguminous, asparagus-like, and the sight of all those sprouting stalks prompted an associative tingle in the soles of his feet. He wanted to kick off his shoes and feel the burr of crushed blades and nappy moss underfoot, the spongy pith between his toes. He wanted the sand to burn. Cook off the New York. But doing so would mean total commitment. It would mean relaxing the quarantine on a whole volume of bittersweet whatever he had no intention of getting caught up in, not now.

    Marty got out and hoisted himself onto the deck. He removed the copper key from his pocket, futzed with the stiff padlock until it clicked loose and creaked open the door. A gust of cabbagy air escaped like a long held breath. There was a faint saccharine tang of stale root beer and dead flies.

    A summer’s worth of sun had impinged upon the metal and collected within it like a kiln. He twisted the knob on the kerosene lamp and the room swelled with dim orange light. Disarray. Loose furniture, stacks of cardboard boxes, a pile of life preservers. Rolled up rugs, scattered newspapers. The single window was rimmed with cobwebs and soot.

    Marty bent down and opened one of the crates, which was damp and sticky with mildew. Inside was a clump of swimming paraphernalia—faded swimsuits, sandy snorkels, plastic sandals—all smeared with leaked suntan lotion.

    He turned on the faucet to wash his hands. The plumbing gagged and spat, releasing a squall of brownish liquid which came in violent, choked little bursts, then whinnied and huffed until it divulged a twisting syrupy trickle. He turned it off.

    When the water drained, it left the sink splotched with a silty black resin like wet coffee grinds. It looked diseased. He turned the knob once again, shyly, and a clean wave fell from the spigot and slid down the length of the sink, drawing a smooth inky rift through the rust like a tear stained with eyeliner.

    The slanting light gleamed through the chips of beach glass lining the window sill. As a child he had imagined that déjà vu was not just a cortical misfiring but a possibility, an actual rift in time through which one could pass by sheer force of will and return to that earlier, enchanted moment. A similar fanciful hope presented itself now as he looked at the glowing backlit shards—each redolent with personal history—and was followed by an intense desire to find and rehabilitate every hidden childhood relic from the spoils.

    He pulled open more cardboard boxes, tabulating the items in his head and assessing their worth. A pewter candleholder. A disassembled birdfeeder. A brass nautical compass. He put things in piles. The Toscanini reels were damaged from the humidity, but he lugged them crate by crate into the van. He took the linen tablecloth; he left the bungee cords and the tow rig. He took the books on Maine; he left the ping pong paddles.

    The jar of arrowheads was nowhere to be found, however, and this disturbed him. It began to seem like the only thing there of any real value at all, if for no other reason than the sheer amount of time it had taken him and Sharon to acquire all those years ago, a value which increased as the probability of discovering it diminished. The more items he found that were not arrowheads, the more punishing their absence became. The short-term solution was to take as many things as possible in recompense. Their combined value would certainly have to offset the pain of not finding the one jar.

    But there was only so much room, and it was getting harder to deny the fact that only a fraction of the contents would fit. He found it metaphysically unfair that the bulky van should so rapidly reach capacity while the tiny storage cabin remained pretty much exactly as full as it had been. In the same manner that a yard sale could go from an alluring treasure chest to a dump in the mind of an impatient shopper, Marty’s desire to adopt and preserve was swiftly countered by an urge to abandon it all forever, to burn the place down and never look back.

    His father’s records were warped probably beyond repair, his mother’s watercolors sponged with mold. What was the point? The point was that he had come all the way up here; some goal had to be completed before he left, even if it was a waste of time. In order for that to happen, though, there had to be some nominal measure of selectivity. He’d have to go through each box, remove only those items worthy of preservation and set them aside. The problem was, nothing of substantial worth had ever been kept in the property in the first place. His mother composed many paintings on the beach, but had always brought the good ones home at the end of the summer. Any respectable bottle the wine rack once held had long been absconded with.

    All of this reaffirmed Marty’s determination to find the arrowheads. They had come from the land. They were the land. If he could just find the jar, that would be enough. He’d settle for a single stone. Just one! He could bring it back and always know that he’d saved it from oblivion. It would make the whole trip worthwhile. It would make him a better person. He could even give the arrowhead to his sister. He’d give it to her and she would take it in her cello-calloused hands and burst into tears. It would be a moment. The simple gesture would forgive a lifetime of sorrow and negligence and regret.

    But he couldn’t find it. Marty tore through box after box until, within moments, he found himself in a state of electrifying rage. He was slightly heartened, however, to find a stash of weed bunched up in a Ziploc. Probably his own, from high school. Was it still good? Did pot expire? He picked up an empty root beer can, thumbed a level dent in the aluminum, and needled the depression full of holes with the sharp edge of a fish hook. He pinched a cluster of flakes from the stash and carefully sprinkled them into the bowl like basil. Inside the barbeque well was a box of blue-tip matches. He went outside and lit up.

    In the crepuscular dusk, shadows had grown richer and graver, and the land was textured with an alluvial stubble. How primordial it all was, the concentric fissures, the lunar divots. Raw tectonics. The silvery roof bloomed in the fugitive violet like a kiss.

    Marty sat in the cooling sand and dragged deeply from his makeshift pipe. Seagulls flocked overhead. Their airborne squawks were reedy and flatulent, like a kid learning the clarinet. He got up and walked along the crest of the farthest dune which unfurled in bunched sags down to the pebbly shore below. The tide was out and the sea was a soapy, brownish green. Shallow waves fizzed over the sand like spilled beer. The wind picked up a bit. Marty rubbed the gooseflesh from his arms.

    He stood there a moment longer, hoping to hear what he might have heard all those years ago, maybe nothing, just the rustling, the currents of air, the strangely comforting sound of a world indifferent to his existence. It was hard to hear, his ears still plugged with fluid from the plane ride. Plus, there was chatter from somewhere. Dinnertime plinks and clicks. Mild laughter. It was coming from the fortress, of course. From the conquistadores with their monstrous add-ons, their monstrous yellow Hummer. The Englanders, he suddenly remembered. Their names were the Englanders.

    Time to go. Marty collapsed the can in his palm and headed to the car. He slammed the trunk closed, got in the seat, revved the engine. When he stepped on the gas, though, the van kicked up a spew of sandy moss from the back tire—nothing. It didn’t budge. He set the gear into reverse, gunned the accelerator and cut the wheel. The engine snarled, helpless. The weight of the records and the books had helped sink the rear end into the loose swale and each whining rotation of the tire entrenched it further. The scent of burnt rubber.

    Marty alternated between the brakes and the gas, swiveling the wheel to either side. The van grunted with each impotent lunge. He got out, placed his hands over the bumper and pushed. It slugged forward, hit a gnarl of bayberry and recoiled, and he continued to rock it with increasing force. Within six or seven shoves Marty could already feel the sting in his shoulders, and the combination of his exhaustion and hunger with the waning high was making him dizzy. He gave it several more heaves, then slumped to the ground, huffing. Schools of blood cells shimmied across his visual field.

    The ghastly thought of having to ask the neighbors for help announced itself—an option he promptly vetoed, then reevaluated as he blanked on available alternatives. No cell phone service. No friends for twenty miles. But was there not something sacrilegious about requesting help from the enemy? The colonists? Perhaps, but it was no less dignified than spending the night on a beach in a rented van.

    Marty felt like a beggar as he approached the house, sweaty, breathless, and baked. They’d be crazy to help. They’d smell the weed, see his bloodshot eyes. What was the use? Then again, it wasn’t like they were going to call the cops. The worst that could happen was, they’d turn him away. He brushed the sand off his knees, shook out his cuffs.

    The additions to the house were at once welcoming and imposing. A scarp of earth slid up towards the porch, which was enclosed by a leafy pergola like a gingerbread house. It made Marty long for midtown, the unpretending drabness of high rises and grimy sewer gratings.

    He climbed the stairway and rapped the knocker, a brushed-copper ring shaped like a sailor’s knot. A teenage boy came to the door. He might have been fifteen, enjoying his last few weeks in the sun before returning to school. His skin was handsomely bronzed, shoulders red and flaking, his hair stringy in that dried salt water way. His cheeks had the tender, sandblasted look of a fresh shave, but without the faint ruddiness that follows actual drags of a razor.

    “Um, hi?”

    “Evening. I’m sorry to bother you. I own the lot next door and my car got stuck in the sand as I was pulling out. Would your parents happen to be home?”

    Marty was enunciating each syllable, fearing he might slur his speech.

    “Oh. Uh, hold on.”

    “Who is it?” called a matronly voice from inside.

    “It’s a guy, needs help with his car?”

    “Well, don’t be rude, Benji, let the man in.”

    The boy stepped awkwardly to the side, allowing Marty a narrow passage through the jamb, then shut the door behind him. As expected, the Englander household was clean, color-coordinated, unerringly presentable. After dinner smells hung in the air: crushed onions, charred meat, wine. A trace of cigar smoke. Stan Getz, or the sound of someone remarkably similar to Stan Getz, could be heard faintly from the living room.

    “Hello, hello!”

    On the wicker sofa was a tall, prim woman in her fifties wearing a teal sweater and dangly pearl earrings.

    “Mrs. Englander?”

    She stood up, greeted her visitor brightly.

    “Come in! Come in!”

    “I apologize for the intrusion. My name’s Marty, I’m your neighbor.”

    “Our neighbor, how lovely!”

    They shook. Her bones had the smooth, brittle feel of crab legs.

    “How is it we’ve never seen you?”

    “Well, I’m only technically your neighbor. I grew up nearby,” he said, evasively. “My family owned a few lots along the beach, including the one next door, but we haven’t been back in some time, so.” He felt like he was pulling a cruel practical joke on an innocent bystander, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell her that this very house had been his own.

    “With the cabin?” she pointed east with her thumb. She was lithe and hale; Marty could imagine her stepping onto the shore after a morning swim, hair pulled snugly into a bathing cap.

    Just then, brusque, fatherly footsteps could be heard thundering down the staircase.

    “Steve,” called Mrs. Englander, “we have a guest!”

    The husband was a jowly, flush-faced man, drawn in blunted contours as though with a brick of charcoal, whereas his wife was like the willowy slashes of a quill pen, limber and loping. He marched forward, outstretched a husky arm.

    “Steve Englander!”

    “Marty Perchec.”

    “Good to know you, Marty.”

    “Likewise.”

    He appeared sturdy in his red linen shirt and jeans, a team player. Marty could see him repairing lawn mowers, toasting grooms.

    “You’ve met Carol and Ben,” he said.

    Marty nodded their way.

    “We also have a daughter, she’s up at college.”

    Up? thought Marty. What’s upward of Maine?

    Steve snatched a framed photograph from the mantelpiece and held it before Marty.

    “She’s doing theater, don’t ask why. Thinks she’ll be in the movies.”

    Indeed, the girl was prom-queen pretty, her flesh as creamy and varnished as her brother’s.

    “She’s got the look,” said Marty. This was music to Carol’s ears. He’d always been a hit with parents.

    Steve growled forcefully into his fist, stifling a cough.

    “You got kids?” he said.

    “Nope.”

    “Married?”

    “Divorced.”

    “Ouch,” said Steve with a sympathetic nod. “Tough racket.”

    “Yes,” said Marty.

    “Cigar?”

    Steve Englander’s teeth had the slight coppery enamel of men who smoked infrequently but steadily for many decades.

    “Thank you, no.”

    “Glass of brandy?”

    “I’m good.”

    “It’s a V.S.O.P. Aged twelve years. Give you a snifter.”

    “Thanks, I’ve got to drive back to New York.”

    “Tonight?” said Carol.

    “I’ve got to be back in the office tomorrow.”

    “Certainly you could take off one day,” she said. “Why don’t you stay with us?”

    “A man’s gotta work,” said Steve with a shrug. “No getting around that.”

    “Afraid not.”

    The windows rattled in the breeze.

    “Well,” Steve said.

    It took longer perhaps than it should have for Marty to understand that it was mildly insulting of him to deny their hospitality. He’d never much cared for the invisible ink of etiquette—the cryptic cues, the backhanded logic—and found it trying to reciprocate when he could just be politely blunt. But he was the stranger here, a stranger asking for a favor, no less, and it became clear that the fee for receiving help was accepting their graces. This would confirm for them their neighborly goodwill, and then he could go.

    “Actually, that brandy is starting to look pretty tempting.”

    “Attaboy,” said Steve with gruff delight. “Have a seat.”

    “So you’ll stay?” Carol shifted her weight girlishly from side to side, hands clasped.

    “Just for the one drink.”

    Steve opened his palm toward one of the armchairs. Marty sat, joined by Carol and Ben, while Steve disappeared into the kitchen.

    The coffee table between them was a sort of flat diorama, a sheet of glass covering a collection of sea shells arranged taxonomically in a shallow bed of sand. Across the room was a chrome-plated, wide screen television, angled outward to reflect the whole scene. Steve returned holding not a timid snifter but an ample goblet full of brandy.

    “So, what’s this business with the car?” he said.

    “Stuck in the sand.”

    Steve bellowed another stout, guttural huff.

    “After the drink, we’ll help getcha out.” He nodded toward Benji, who nodded back: a job for men.

    “I’d be very grateful.”

    He handed him the glass, wide and heavy as a ripe guava.

    “Chin chin,” he said. They sipped.

    The effect of the alcohol on Marty’s empty stomach was instantaneous. After several more tugs, he felt comfortable enough to tell them about being a program designer, which, to his astonishment, seemed to impress them. Steve responded that he was a professional mediator, a job he described as “basically the same thing.” Benji seemed confused by the analogy.

    The guest was feeling okay. He was about to open up further, and was even considering broaching the subject of his existential torpor when Carol said, “Tell us a story!” her eyes glittering.

    Marty paused. “An engineering story?”

    These he had in spades. Cokehead executives. Prima donnas. A rapper who had to be bailed out of jail to sign a licensing agreement.

    “No, no. Tell us about growing up here!”

    Marty felt a sudden disequilibrium, something gastronomically afoul. Chatting idly was one thing, but sharing a childhood memory with the very people who had vanquished his birthplace was another.

    “I’m not sure I have any.”

    “You must.”

    He could not, in fact, recall a single story. He sat there dumbly, shuffling through various broken-off moments in his head. There were happenings—water-balloon fights in the dunes, splinters in feet, bee stings, a small fire once, a brief hurricane—but nothing to hold them in place. No arrangement of events spelled a sequence that might qualify as a story.

    “The contractor screwed my dad with the deck,” he said, feebly. “The guy used pine and charged him for birch.” He punctuated this with a sniffle of a laugh, as if there was some deeper irony to be gleaned from his flaccid anecdote.

    But the Englanders were serious. Marty knew the land, and they knew that he knew it. He was the keeper of its secrets, the only one of them with access to the history.

    “Okay,” he said, summoning his will. “True story.”

    Carol placed her elbows on her knees, already enchanted. Steve tilted his head back. Benji fixed his gaze on Marty, a pensive squint that suggested a far greater acuity and critical discernment than one might have expected.

    “So,” Marty cleared his throat. “Years ago I spent the summer here with my wife. We were pretty much newlyweds, maybe twenty-four years old. Kids. And we had the house to ourselves for the first time and it was great. No New York noise, no craziness, just the two of us and the dunes for a month. I mean, I’d been up here a zillion times before, but always with my parents, my sister, so it was always lively. I never got spooked by the woods and the owls, the weird quiet that creeps in on you.”

    He eyed his audience, each in turn. “But, so here we were alone, just me and my wife, swimming and reading and laying low, and days pass and our ears are still adjusting to the silence. You know how it goes. You lie there in bed, acutely attuned to every little sound—the rustling leaves, the surf, all the creaks and rattles in the old house. Thing is, we started to hear other stuff. Not just wind and crickets but all these other sounds. Whispers. Baying. Noises that didn’t seem natural. And they got louder each night.”

    Carol wore an amused grin, as though she were anticipating an imminent punch line. Marty felt a theatrical poise, a raconteurial command. He played largely to Benji, hoping to win the incredulous teen.

    “It was like ear-ringing,” he continued, “only it came from out there. Each night we’d hear it swell and shift, this strange, humming drone like a brass chorale that would slew in pitch and fork into wacked-out harmonies. We thought it must have been some cruise ship, one of those casino boats with the salsa bands just off the shore, but it sure didn’t sound like party music. More like an ancient dirge. Long, broad, drawn-out tones. Some kind of sacred Indian voodoo.”

    The brandy gave a fresh charge to Marty’s dwindling buzz. He could feel the pleasant mingling of toxins in his blood, a dance of bandits.

    “But it got even weirder than that. I know it sounds crazy, but I swear it was like we were tuned in to some whole other frequency, some cosmic bandwidth from God knows where. It was terrifying and beautiful—we’d never heard anything like it. Finally, I decided I had to record it, otherwise no one would believe us.”

    Benji pinched his lips, curious despite himself.

    “My dad had been a music engineer for years and he had all this vintage equipment lying around. So I went into the basement and dug up an old reel-to-reel, still in perfect shape. I dusted it off, threaded it up with clean quarter-inch tape, plugged in an omnidirectional mike, tested the levels, and went out into the dunes late at night to capture this crazy Jovian chorus.

    “Next day we woke up early and drove into Portland. We went to this little hole-in-the-wall shop—this old place that fixed stereos—and asked the guy to play the tape for us through a set of speakers. He was happy to do us the favor, and even offered to transfer it to cassette. So he set it up, plugged in the cables and we all listened in and . . . nothing. There was nothing there. No sound, no music. The needles on the recorder didn’t budge. We felt like idiots, just sitting there listening to nothing.

    “So we went back home and the sound was completely gone. The winds were low, the tide had gone out. Total silence. No moans or drones. Just the surf. A gentle breeze, a fog horn.” Marty raised his eyebrows, gulped the last of his brandy. “We left at the end of the summer and never spoke about it again.”

    He looked down at his shoes.

    “So what happened?” said Carol.

    “Hm?”

    “What did it turn out to be?”

    “What?”

    “The noise.”

    “I don’t know.”

    Carol and Steve shared a grimace.

    “It must have been something.”

    “I mean, I had a few ideas,” said Marty, “I just never found out for sure.”

    “A radio, maybe?” she continued, her voice stiff. “Because that just doesn’t happen.”

    Marty shifted his weight in the wicker chair.

    “It could have been the singing sand,” he said.

    “How can sand ‘sing’?” said Carol, as if certain by now that her visitor was putting her on.

    “It doesn’t literally sing,” Marty explained. “It’s a rare natural phenomenon, but well-documented. Certain beaches and deserts are known to contain a particularly abrasive type of silica capable of yielding audible tones given sufficient friction. The right stirring of winds can cause the little granules to rub up against each other, producing ‘chirps’ like crickets’ legs, which, en masse, culminate in a resounding minereal chorus.”

    “Is that true?” said Benji.

    “That’s not . . . I mean, certainly there’s no way. . . .” Carol seemed genuinely distressed.

    “Probably all the lead in the well water,” interjected Steve, dismissively. “Sometimes those old basins get chalked with sediment from all the runoff. Drink that stuff, you’ll see visions.” He nodded, squeezed his wife’s knee as if to reassure her. “That’s why we had the water filter installed when we moved in.”

    There was a tincture of discomfort in the room. It was hard to know exactly at what point Marty had stepped over the line, but a threshold had undoubtedly been crossed. And now he could feel himself coming down, hard. The Englanders’ tepid, near-perturbed reaction managed to chelate whatever toxic magic was left in his system.

    “Would you mind if I used your restroom?” Marty asked.

    The father hesitated before answering: “Up the stairs, last door on the left.”

    The second floor was compartmental and dim rather than bright and open like the first. The walls were adorned with racks of golf balls and assorted Navajo miscellany—satchels, turquoise beads, snowshoes. These knickknacks, which had at first struck Marty as generically quaint, almost obligatory, like the framed certificates in a doctor’s office, now seemed like a perverse form of kitsch. Savagery redressed as ornamentation. Was it any different from stuffed deer heads? Or, more to the point, a street cobbled with Jewish gravestones? When he’d read Hannah Arendt’s treatise on Eichmann in college, he’d found “the banality of evil” a powerful phrase, damning and exact. Now it sounded like ad copy. It was the kind of soundbite whose pith and precision inoculated the thing being described—to name it was to excuse it.

    These Navajo trinkets suddenly seemed not only the crowning defamation in a series of unforgivable offenses, but a personal affront to Marty.

    He felt a panic welling. He needed a fix.

    He shut himself in the bathroom and flipped on both the heatlamp and the vent, cushioning the space in a sibilant purr of white noise. In the mirror, his flesh was crumply and pallid like an old man’s. His heart machine-gunned as he opened and closed what must have been three different cabinets stacked with ointments and exfoliants and rolls of diaperish accoutrement. He rifled through jars of calamine lotion and peroxide, overturned boxes of cotton swabs, vials of antihistamines, an ambiguous plastic thing with wires. There was some prescription Tylenol tucked away in the back, but tragically not the kind with codeine. He considered the potential combinations. Perhaps by sampling a little of everything he could invite enough interactivity between the various chemicals to produce something akin to an altered state. Was it too late to accept the cigar? He nipped from a bottle of Nyquil. Popped three Sudafeds. Sniffed the oily nozzle of an aerosol can.

    Speckles of sweat gathered on his brow; the heat was now stifling. It was only when Marty twisted the stubborn lid off an unlabelled glass container and began to probe the interior for anything ingestible that he realized he was holding the one thing more valuable to him at that moment than drugs: the jar of arrowheads.

    The jar! Right there! In his hand! He’d looked right past it on the shelf above the sink about five times, oblivious. It didn’t register. Even now there was a level of distrust, a flickering suspicion that these weren’t really the arrowheads, not the ones he himself plucked from the damp soil three decades earlier.

    He tipped the jar into his palm, carefully shook loose a fistful off the top. The stones were cold and small and sandy. He cupped his other hand around the first like he was holding a frightened baby bird and brought them to his face.

    It was like finding the teeth of Peking Man. An alien fossil entombed in a meteor. He was surprised and delighted that the minute serrations were still sharp, and yet why shouldn’t they be?

    Marty couldn’t ask for the jar, this was obvious. For it to remain a bathroom trinket in the Englander paradise was surely awful, but far more awful was the thought of having to explain what it meant to him. This would allow them access not only to something he loved but to its being loved. And regardless of whether the jar ultimately stayed or left, it would exist henceforth only as a gift, a symbolic transfer of ownership—something Marty couldn’t stomach.

    He pocketed three of the stones, set the jar back on the shelf and returned downstairs.

    “Everything all right?” said Carol, standing at the open door.

    “Yes,” he said.

    Outside it was dark and soberingly cold. Steve and Benji were already at the tin house, standing by the van with shovels.

    “Rear tire’s wedged in there pretty good,” grunted Steve. He was in his element.

    “Yeah,” said Marty.

    “This is why we’re getting it paved,” said the father to the son.

    The Englander men began raking and plowing the mealy earth with the spades while Marty got behind the wheel and eased on and off the gas. Carol stood on the porch, hugging her shoulders.

    “Hit it,” commanded Steve.

    Marty punched the accelerator; the engine growled, the wheels shook and spun out in a whorl of putrid steam. Still nothing.

    “It’s like quicksand,” said Benji. Perhaps he was wondering if he’d one day hear the singing dunes.

    “Time for plan B,” huffed Steve as he approached the driver’s door. “We got a Hummer and a chain. You got a tow-hitch?” His breath was mushroomy.

    “Yes, sir,” said Marty, gesturing with his thumb. “The rig’s on the deck of the tin house. The cabin.”

    “All right. You keep at it. Ben, you get the car, I’ll fetch the rig.”

    Marty’s companions disappeared into the darkness while he sat alone in the van. The headlights punched through the mist. The engine rumbled. He could hear the crickets. He thought of his wife, his ex-wife, how frightened she’d been of the dark. How she’d grip his arm at night if she heard an owl or a rap of wind.

    Suddenly it occurred to Marty that the problem here might have been less the looseness of the sand in back and more the resiliency of the brush in front. The word unearth came to mind. He liked the sound of it.

    He got out, gripped the stiff bayberry shrub by the base and yanked. The twigs bit his palms. Scales of bark ground against his wrists. He wanted to shout. He wanted to claw off his nails and fuck the dunes. He wanted the sand to cry and the wind to bleed. Finally, the mutant briar began to give, its outrageously long and stubborn tentacles plinking loose like severed piano wires. He drop-kicked the dusty clump of roots and earth and got back into the van. He shifted into front-wheel drive and hit the gas. With a quick lurch, the rear tires slid jerkily over the swale. The van swerved left in a cloud of angry dust and smoke, and as he tore forward onto the path, Marty heard, or thought he heard, the sound of his ears popping.

    *

    © by Alex Rose. Used by permission of the author.

    Browse through Alex’s world here . . .

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