Old Boyfriends

OldBoyfriends

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Sue Lange

 

Funny how you can go through a whole day and not remember a bit of it. One minute you’re on the morning train, and the next you’re back at Grand Central during evening rush hour, waiting for the train to North White Plains.

Sarah Carla spotted the gate number just as the fleeting questions about where the day had gone entered her head. She passed the flits off as a human’s amazing ability to turn off their brain when its work day was as mind-numbing, tedious, boring, and mundane as Sarah Carla’s. There was a phenomenon associated with it; some sort of self-anesthetizing reaction to the dull world of the underutilized.

Sarah Carla, expert data input clerk and sometime telephone answerer, would be the first to tell you she was not underutilized. She had the fastest fingers in town. A pretty big statement in a city of seven million. Unfortunately, she got paid by the hour so her talent went unrecompensed fairly. Perhaps Jerome was right about her not reaching her potential. Perhaps he was right to fight with her about it. But did he have to leave over it? Anybody that left because their partner was unrecompensed fairly was not someone you wanted as a partner.

She spotted the gate number, 29, and turned from the boards to head across the floor past the information booth where gate 29 stood.

The commuter crunch was in full swing. Raincoats—the uniform outer wear of the modern-day office worker regardless of the weather—flocked toward the various gates and passages. The surging pool of brown khaki was no doubt overwhelming to inexperienced out-of-towners, but Sarah Carla and the 499,999 other day workers were well informed. They navigated past each other swiftly, avoiding mishaps. Briefcases and laptops slung along like nursery rhymes: all rhythm and purpose.

Sarah glanced at the big clock hanging above the balcony of the Palms where the less-pressed commuters stopped for a martini before heading home to supper and bed. Or maybe a group of visitors rested there to regain strength squandered on a day of manic shopping—the last New York minute before their holiday ended. Parcels and bags gathering underneath the little tables there attested to the latter.

The clock said 4:15, giving Sarah a good twenty-five m…

Just as Sarah returned her gaze from the dial to the ever-moving maze of rushing bodies wearing raincoats and carrying cases, a face materialized out of the crowd and brushed past her. Its owner wore a green and gold letter jacket, circa 1976, instead of the ubiquitous power raincoat.

Sarah gasped. Reggie Crown’s face had not changed a bit. She abruptly turned to watch Reggie’s passing varsity coat sink into the surrounding crowd. The sudden move on her part caused the man carrying the Dell immediately behind her to lose his timing. He stumbled into her for a brief second. Then, in a deft side step, he regained his composure and returned to the swing of the crowd and within seconds was halfway to gate 32. Sarah stood unmoving for a frozen moment before stepping forward to follow the green and gold.

“Reggie,” she called.

The jacket was by now heading around the corner to the main exit. She swam upstream to follow. She called again when she reached the corner and watched him looking for an opening in one of the twelve exit doors. He was the only one in the crowd trying to leave the building. The noise was such that he could not hear her calling. Soon he was out and now Sarah was in the same predicament he had just been in.

Pushing, elbowing, and glaring at the oncoming traffic, she made it to the exit doors as an old woman with a cane was also trying to exit. Everyone around the old lady had opened a path to let her by and Sarah saw her opening. She stepped through with an “I’m sorry,” to the doddering woman.

“Fuck off!” the old woman said.

“Thanks,” said Sarah, actually meaning it, because she was not paying the least bit of attention.

Reggie Crown crossed the street and headed into the Pershing Café just as the traffic light changed. Sarah ignored the red hand standing in for “Don’t Walk” and shot across the street, safe in the thirty seconds after the hand came up that the pedestrians would jaywalk against the light. Long before the thirty seconds were up, Sarah was inside the café and explaining to the hostess that she was looking for a friend in a green and gold high school bomber jacket.

“Cabletown?” the hostess asked.

“Yes,” Sarah answered seriously, as if Sarah actually needed to specify the one from Cabletown as opposed to the ones from Allentown, Syracuse, or Bumpfuck.

“Yes, he joined his friends in the far corner,” the hostess answered once she knew exactly which person Sarah was referring to. She pointed to the back where the riser was situated by floor-to-ceiling windows allowing patrons to sit and watch foot traffic outside.

Sarah collected her raincoat belt that had slipped to its last loop. She walked to the corner table where Reggie Crown was just settling in with three others. As she approached the table, the four turned and smiled to her as if they expected her. She kept her eyes on Reggie, though, and didn’t see the others: the crooked teeth and thick glasses with the tape holding the stem in place on bachelor #1, the white boy dreads of bachelor #2, and the innocent age of 15 of bachelor #3. She only had eyes for those of her high school sweetheart, Reggie Crown.

Reggie was not surprised to see Sarah Carla. He smiled in warm welcome, not taken aback in the least. He did not jump up in surprise and wonder for a few moments just how the hell she got here. He did not imagine himself back on the track practicing with coach Dander while his love sat in the bleachers, melting at the thought of a little hunt and pet after the drill.

“Reggie!” Sarah Carla held her arms out to embrace the unembraceable. “What are you doing here?”

Reggie remained seated and smiling. “Sarah, have a seat. We’re all here.”

Sarah’s wide smile slowly released into the shape of a “W” as in “What the…?” as she took in the other three bachelors. She looked from one unaged face of her youth to the next: Tom, her first boyfriend, still anticipating his sixteenth birthday and the expected driver’s license; Lance, the guitar-prone genius headed for the Billboard charts; Mike, her college boy and calculus compatriot. They sat smiling and looking exactly the way they had the day she’d left each of them for greener pastures a long time ago.

She froze and moved only her eyes from one ghost to the next. After several moments of confusion and perhaps a tinge of fright, she spoke: “You forgot Jerome.”

“Jerome’s not an ex,” Mike stated with the exactitude she would expect.

“As of last week, he is,” she said.

“Sit down, Sarah,” Reggie said. He stood to pull out the vacant seat between him and Mike.

“Uh,” Sarah faltered, her brain short-circuiting as she tried to force herself awake. She knew she was dreaming. “I’m going to miss my train,” she said.

“You’re going to take the late bus today. What will you be doing when you get home, anyway?” Reggie asked.

“That’s more important,” Lance added.

Sarah looked at him. His face had not lost its innocence yet. He hadn’t met with the crushing defeat of the music industry. He had not gone into insurance yet. He was still headed for the Grammies right here thirty years later. She stared with her mouth opened in wonder, her brows cinched together.

The four of them watched her and became impatient. Especially Tom, the youngest and a bit fidgety. “It’s your weekly confession,” he blurted. “Did you forget?”

“My weekly confession?” she turned to him now. “What are you talking about? And why do you bother shaving that little wispy thing?”

“Is that why you dumped me?” he asked.

“I dumped you?”

“Sarah, sit down, please,” Reggie pleaded in a not so much accommodating way as an annoyed way.

Sarah looked to him and realized she was stuck in either his dream or hers. Or in a hallucination or delusion.

“It’s not a dream,” Lance said.

“Or a hallucination,” Mike said.

“Or a delusion,” Tom said.

“It’s your weekly confession,” Reggie said.

“That’s what Tom said,” she answered as she looked again from one unchanged face to the next. She ended on Reggie. “And why should this weekly confession be any different than any other weekly confession?”

“It’s different because you meant it,” he answered.

“You sound like some lackey in human resources. Are you going to start in on the bullshit line? I won’t listen; it’s all just some company requirement to keep the psychologists off their back.”

“You’re wrong about that,” Mike jumped in. “It has been proven that people that go to church regularly and experience forgiveness of sins perform fifty percent better in their jobs. After all the tests and surveys were completed it was determined that out of all the things church offers, it’s the forgiveness of sins that really makes a difference.”

“Really,” Tom said.

“Better even than life after death,” Mike continued. “You’re a registered atheist and so have to resort to electronic confession to get equivalent relief.”

“And keep your job,” Tom added.

“It’s just snake oil,” Sarah said, looking straight at Mike.

“On the contrary,” he answered. He stood up and circled over to Tom to illustrate the theory behind the electronic confessional experience.

“Your brain harbors unresolved conflicts in your temporal cortex,” he said palming the top of Tom’s head, his brain. “These conflicts reside in the neurotransmitters stored in long-term memory in various and sundry synapses. They periodically release signals to the amygdala where tension, resentment, anger, self-pity, self-loathing emanate. These negative feelings will continue to affect your personality and sensitivity all your life unless prior conflicts are resolved. Forgiveness of sins resolves these conflicts. Every Sunday, true believers take advantage of the fact, go to church, and start with a clean slate Monday morning. You, being an atheist my dear,” he bowed towards Sarah, “must resort to technological means to achieve the same sort of release. You, my dear Sarah Carla, have been subjected to fMRI which detects just where your sins are residing. A tiny bit of dopamine via tyrosine injection—small and unnoticeable, yet highly effective—has been sent to your temporal cortex to induce hallucinations,” he gestured to the four at the table, “to affect a dredging up of your past sins stored in the cortex. We’ll get the ball rolling, extract a confession, and pretty soon forgiveness will set in.”

“Ha!” Sarah said, taking the seat next to Reggie. “I’ve been going to Confession® every Wednesday since I signed onboard this meat-packing outfit. It’s never made any difference to me. I wake up just as disillusioned on Monday morning as I was on Friday night. I don’t buy it.”

“Then why are we here?” Lance asked. “How did I get here, looking as I do? As if I was still starry-eyed, pimply-assed, and slightly off-key? Why aren’t I interested in selling you some homeowners’?”

“I don’t own a home?” Sarah suggested.

“And how come I’m still fifteen?” Tom asked.

Faced with the obvious, Sarah did what was natural, she balked. “So I went to my weekly confessional requirement as mandated by Company policy and now you four are the result? How’d it happen? Takes a lot of dope to become four sizable blobs of protoplasm, even if your brains were never very developed.”

“So that’s why you dumped me for a jock,” Tom said.

“And me for a rock star,” Reggie said.

“And me for a genius,” Lance said.

“But why’d you leave me?” Mike asked. He walked from where he stood next to Tom and out in front of Sarah across the table.

Sarah pulled on her collar, tugging the clay bola at the front of her neck loose. “Can’t we get a waiter or something?” she said. “What’s wrong with the service here, I’m dry as a bone.”

“Why’d you leave me?” Mike asked, raising his voice to the point of emotion.

“Why am I on trial here?” Sarah asked. “Kids don’t form real relationships, they change boyfriends weekly. What do I have to make an accounting of?” She stood to go and tied her raincoat belt around her waist.

“You’re not on trial here,” Reggie said. “It’s your confession; you wanted us here.”

“That’s bullshit,” she said, looking directly at Mike. “Snake oil.”

Mike rolled his eyes. “You know it isn’t. The confessional samples your brain waves, analyzes the sin, dopes it around and voilá, Reggie Crown is meeting you in Grand Central, leading you to your final destination: the back table at the old Pershing Café. Waitress!” he held his forefinger up in the air, beckoning the server in the middle of the room.

The waitress came to the table balancing an empty drink tray on her right palm and said, “What can I get you?”

“The lady needs a drink,” Mike answered.

“I just want a… a Pellegrino,” Sarah said, retrieving her seat.

“And what else?” the waitress asked looking around the table at the bachelors.

They all shook their heads and cast their eyes down. “Nothing for us,” Reggie spoke for them all.

The waitress smiled tightly and walked away. For several moments no one said anything.

Sarah finally spoke. “Why now, why today? What’s different?”

“Why do you ask us?” Lance said.

“This is your scenario,” Mike added. He sat back down in his seat and fumbled with a table napkin, folding it into neat parallel thirds.

“I don’t know why, Mike,” Sarah said. “I don’t know why, truly. I wish I did. As for the confessional, I guess I wanted to apologize to all of you. I was unable to give you all you needed, what you deserved, or anything at all.”

“You said you loved me,” Tom said.

The table grew restless; they all knew what he meant.

“I lied,” she said. “I didn’t know what love is. Don’t now.”

“Oh, come on,” Lance jumped up. “No one knows. That’s a stupid excuse.”

“But it’s the truth and if you look back on it, you’ll realize you didn’t love me either. We were just trifling, not meaning anything, practicing for the big meltdown. For the day when the walls would come tumbling down. When we’d get hit by a ton of bricks. Nobody loved anybody!” She looked from one to the next as she worked through her rationalization.

“I loved you,” Mike remained slumped.

“Oh, please, Mike,” she said, almost disgusted. “We were still kids, big-brained, malformed, grown-up kids, waiting for the next thing.”

“I loved you and you knew it,” he said.

She inhaled and exhaled in a quiet burst, perceptible only to herself. “Why?” she asked.

“Because you were bright, excited, and exciting. Something that had never come along before. We went everywhere together. We were inseparable. I hung on your every breath, planned my whole life around you. And you knew it.”

“How could I know it?” she asked.

“Because I told you. And you knew it anyway.”

“You trying to make me feel guilty?”

Small laughs and chuckles gurgled simultaneously from all four bachelors.

“That’s the point,” Reggie on her left said. “You’re making you feel guilty.”

“Oh yeah, from the confessional,” she said. “Thing is, it’s not working.”

“It worked before you even stepped into that booth on 29th and Park,” Lance said. “We’re not here to dredge up the past and remind you of what you did; we’re here for forgiveness of sins.”

“I forgive you,” Sarah said.

The four stared at her with half-closed eyes. No one said a word.

Sarah looked at Tom and said, “Because Reggie was better looking.”

She looked at Reggie. “Because Lance was more edgy.”

She looked at Lance. “Because it was over.”

She slowly turned to Mike and inhaled deeply. She glanced at the three-fold napkin he’d been playing with. “It was too much,” she whispered.

Mike sat up stiffly. “What?”

Sarah leaned in towards him. “You were too much.”

When he didn’t react she repeated it louder: “Too much!” And then quieter: “I couldn’t breathe.”

“Because I loved you?”

“I guess. I don’t know. Love was not what I expected. There was this terrible disabling aspect.”

“Because I loved you too much?”

“That’s not love, Mike. That’s fear.”

“It was love, and you knew it.”

“I knew it wasn’t, but I could never tell you. It was so much easier to just run away.”

“So is that your confession?” Mike asked.

“What difference does it make?”

“You tell me.”

“Tell us,” the other three said together.

Silence again as she looked around from face to face.

“I handled it all wrong. All of it. All of you. I never explained. I didn’t know how. I don’t know now. I’m just very, very sorry.”

She hung her head and tried to gather an explanation, find an answer on the inside of her eyelids with eyes pinched shut.

“Ma’am, your seltzer,” the waitress was bringing her order. Sarah snapped her head up and looked at the waitress. “Ah,” she said. Without looking around the table, she knew they’d gone. They’d faded away once her confession had been completed.

“Thank you. I’ll take the check now,” she said.

She took a few sips of the Pellegrino which burned divinely in her throat, and then pulled a few bills out of her laptop outer pocket and dropped them onto the table. Gathering up her raincoat and laptop, she walked through the café and out into the 42nd street pedestrian traffic.

Across Park Avenue, the express bus for Westchester waited for the embarking commuters. It seemed about ready to take off so Sarah hollered “wait!” as she ran across the small distance from the café exit to the bus entrance.

Once inside the bus, she passed her commuter card over the reader and gained admittance to the seating area. With no surprise, and actually a little expectation, she moved to the one empty seat next to Harold, her husband—now ex—of three years.

Harold wore a brimmed hat of the style that would make sure the whole bus noticed. He nodded to her as she sat. Once she had made herself comfortable, he inhaled, gearing up for a spiel. Just as he was enunciating his first syllable, she cut him off.

“I have absolutely no remorse regarding you,” she said. “My confession does not include you. Everything I’ve ever needed to say to you has been said. So what the eff?”

Deflated, Harold closed his mouth and lost his energy. “Hello to you too,” he said.

“So what’s my crime?” she asked.

“No crime, don’t be so defensive. As you noted everything that needed to be said, has been said. A long time ago, I might add.”

“So why are you here?”

“For closure.”

“Oh, please,” she looked away, adjusted her laptop onto her lap.

“Now, now Sarah. Your confession conjured me as the one person that could best guide you forward. You’re all clean now, and vulnerable. You made your confession, that’s true. But you don’t know why yet.”

“So why you? I don’t even like you at this point.”

“Who better? You don’t like me, but you can trust me. We don’t have any secrets; our mutual hate makes us painfully honest. Who else would lay it out in the open for you?”

“Are you going to tell me how many hail Marys or acts of charity I have to commit for penance or something?”

“In a word? No. You just need a push in the right direction and all charity becomes your own.”

“Uh huh.”

“Why do you think Jerome wasn’t there?”

“Leave him out of this. He’s not hounding me so let’s leave well enough alone. I’ve had enough old boyfriends for the time being.”

“He’s not an old boyfriend, Sarah.” All levity had gone out of Harold’s voice. He had the seriousness of a teacher that’s getting to the grist and will leave no child behind.

“Have you spoken to him?” Sarah asked.

“No, have you?”

“Not since last week when he ditched me.”

“Why did he do that?”

“How should I know?”

“Oh, come on Sarah, you know full well why. You made him. You wanted him to.”

“I absolutely did not.”

“Why didn’t you want him to?”

“Because I…”

“Ah,” the bon vivant returned to Harold. His eyebrows lifted, he shrugged his shoulders. “So why are you here? In this city? On this bus?”

“I live here.”

“You ran here.”

“It’s a place.”

“You have a mechanical engineering degree from a half-way decent school, yet you do data input, the type of work a half-witted monkey could do. Why do you take the easy way out all the time? Why don’t you work for what you want?”

“It’s relaxing. You should try it sometime.”

“Why are your fingernails all chewed to the quick if you’re so relaxed?”

Sarah looked down at her hands resting on the top of the laptop. “What do you want, Harold?”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to leave me alone.”

“And so I shall,” Harold said. “For here is my stop.” He rose to go. The side door was already opening with the passengers queued up in the aisle. He latched onto the back of the line and at the door he turned to Sarah and said, “It’s okay to be wrong, you know, if that’s what you want.” The doors flapped shut behind him.

Sarah huffed after him as if her disgust would reach through the doors and remind him how annoying he was and how glad she was that at least she and he had no unfinished business.

* * * * *

Abruptly the lights went out and she found herself waking in the booth’s curtained darkness. The LEDs of the analyzer surrounding her blinked in the darkness. She felt woozy, disoriented. She barely remembered accepting the tyrosine-laced wafer proffered from the booth’s mechanical priest arm.

“Please retrieve card,” came the canned instruction. She registered its sound and slowly realized she needed to get her debit card back and return to work.

Tripping out of the booth on 29th and Park before fully regaining consciousness, she felt too queasy to face the data terminal. She collected her raincoat and her laptop and headed down to Grand Central. She thought about Jerome and the fight they’d had. He was pressuring her into checking into the city engineering gig. He worked in the mayor’s office and found out about a contract in the making for new city development—office buildings, parking garages. A lot of shit was going on. White Plains needed a gaggle of young, enthusiastic (read: cheap) engineers to pump up the design/inspection squad. He really wanted her to put in an app. She claimed as usual he wasn’t getting it; that she was fine where she was. He said, fine. She said, fine. He left. For good, he said.

In the station, the 1:00 p.m. crowd was nothing like that during commuter crunch. She easily found her gate, 11, and without any jarring ex-boyfriends to intercede, entered the train and lay down in the empty seat. Once the train got underway, she felt better and sat up.

On the other side of the river, the train exited the tunnel and made it out into the open. She watched the cityscape permute from tall housing projects to warehouses to six-floor borough residences to the suburbs with its single-family homes on sixth-acre lots interspersed with duplexes and cement walkways running between them. At Woodlawn she debarked along with the Irish-American contingent that lived there.

Walking the couple of blocks to her tiny back-room apartment, she thought of her past mistakes and personality flaws. As she neared her street, the self-absorption slowly strayed away. The sun had come out after an early afternoon shower and the air smelled fresh and invigorating. She thought of how lucky she was to be able to duck out of work on such a mad, great day. She began skipping, with the laptop swinging like a child’s lunch pail. She ran up the steps to her flat and flew into the kitchen, dropping the raincoat and laptop onto the table. She picked up the headset of her landline and punched in #1.

“Hello,” came from the end of the line.

“Jerome,” she said. “What are you doing home?”

“Sarah? Uh, well I was coming down to meet you.”

“But I’m home now and I was, uh, just thinking of coming over to your office.”

“But I’m not there.”

“I know, and that puts me in a quandary, because…”

“I just want you to forget the whole city job thing. It’s fine where you are. I just want you to be happy, and I…”

“…because I decided I needed to fill out an app anyway, and I’m…”

“…miss you, and I don’t want to…”

“…sorry, and I don’t want to…”

Together they said, ”break up.”

 

Book Review: We, Robots

Layout 1by Michael D. Pederson

 

We, Robots
Sue Lange
Aqueduct Press, 98 pp.

We, Robots, a novella, is part of the “Small Paperback Series” from Aqueduct Press. Like Lange’s previous novel, Tritcheon Hash, this novella combines a hearty blend of science fantasy with good old-fashioned, tongue-in-cheek satire.

The story follows (and is told by) Avey, an AV-1 model robot that is purchased as a nanny for a young girl. Like all the best science fiction robots, Avey is a mirror held up to society; as he learns how to function around people we learn more about ourselves. As humanity numbs itself with “pain stoppage” technology, robots are equipped with pain sensors to make them more empathic and to give them greater learning capabilities. It’s fun to watch as the humans become less sensitive and the robots more so. Social allegory can be a bit of a blunt hammer in the wrong hands, but Lange wields it well.

A major focus of the plot is the oncoming Singularity. I think that Lange oversimplified a bit in her description of the Singularity. In her words, it is “that exact instant when artificial intelligence, AI, surpasses biological intelligence.” More fully, the Singularity describes the point when technology begins advancing at an exponential rate due to a superhuman artificial (or enhanced biological) intelligence. To use an example from Lange’s novel: it wouldn’t be the point when robot intelligence grows beyond ours, it would be the point when robots use that intelligence to start modifying themselves and technology to grow beyond humanity. I’m just nitpicking though; Lange cleverly avoids any problems here by having her robots decide not to move past the Singularity. She calls it the “Regularity” instead. I have to give her credit, it’s a nice twist; just because the Singularity is possible, does it have to happen? And her reasoning for not pursuing the advance is extremely plausible—self-interest, the most human of emotions. Good stuff.

 

The Failure

FlutegirlSMALL

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Sue Lange

 

Jennie Knot sat in dismay in the graffittiless powder room of the Student Union, constipated. This was due in no small part to the fact that she had eaten nothing but animal by-products for a number of weeks. She simply wasn’t getting her fiber. But it also was an indication of her psychological state. In her final term at the famed Schloss Institute for Excellent Musicians, she was alternately relieved to be done with six years of grueling study and scared shitless—so to speak—about the fact that now she’d have to go out and be somebody. As if fitting into the big picture would ever be a problem for Jennie Knot.

In the fourth grade, after she took the musical aptitude test, it was discovered that not only could she keep a good beat, but she could dance to it as well. In other words, she was musically-inclined. She wasted no time in taking up the Boehm’s Instrument—a hollow tube that generates a sound when the operator directs his or her breath over the principle opening at the near end. The pitch of the subsequent vibrating air column inside the tube changes as the operator opens or closes valves and holes situated on the far end.

By high school graduation Jennie had mastered the Boehm, enjoying no less than first chair in the orchestra and bands—symphonic, pit, jazz, and marching—as well as holding featured soloist status on “special music” Sundays at church. In that span of time she’d memorized the entire body of important music that had been written since the beginning of time. Even if nobody was writing anything after 2302, that’s a lot of music. From Bach chorales to Led Zeppelin drum spectaculars, Jennie knew every solo line transposed to the correct key for the Boehm.

For her diligence and sacrifice of personal life, in 2396, Jennie Knot was accepted to the Schloss Institute—Soloist’s Track—and came to the astonishing conclusion that it was high time she got serious about her music. She began practicing twelve hours a day and relearned all that archived music in the remaining eleven keys of Western harmonic thought.

And now, with only one examination left and a final performance before the talent scouts for the Big Symphonies (BSes), she was both elated and frightened that graduation loomed. She was the Institute’s star pupil and all the BSes were chasing after her, trying to entice her on board. They alluded to gifts of solid gold flutes, free long-distance for a year, exotic trips to Germanic countries. The baby combos didn’t even bother. They knew they’d never attract someone of her stature.

Still, as is often the case with the overly-talented, she had doubts about herself.

She emerged from the antiseptic powder room, red-faced and uncomfortably bloated. Spotting her curly-headed pal, Loonie, over at a table on the side, she walked over and gingerly sat down in a vacant chair.

“I saw that peasant with the glass eye again today,” Loonie said.

“What peasant? There’s no peasants anymore,” Jennie answered.

“Okay, okay, you know what I mean. That old lady in black with the babushka thing.”

“Oh, right. The ‘gypsy.’ She’s standing on the corner waiting for the light to change. You’re on the bus. She looks at you with her glass eye. Big deal. What is that supposed to mean?”

“It’s the third time. And she looks at me. Nobody else.”

“How can you tell where she’s looking if she has a glass eye?”

“I can tell. And it’s the third time!”

“Yeah, all right. Bad luck. Can’t you go home and break a mirror or something to cancel it out?”

“No, I have to live through it whatever it is. This is the worst time this could happen with finals and everything. I gotta go home and light a candle.”

“Why don’t you go home and practice? You’d do a lot better.”

“Easy for you to say. You’ve never even seen second first chair.”

“Because I practice.”

“And you’re the most talented person I know.

“No, I’m the hardest worker. You’re the most talented. You’re pulling straight C’s and you never practice.”

“I burn incense.”

“I practice.”

“No shit. When was the last time you made it to the Congolese?”

“Orientation Day.”

“Jesus! You need a drink.”

“I have my instrument.”

“Yeah, please. You sound like you’re in band camp.”

The conversation degraded from there and soon Jennie and Loonie left for their respective abodes; Jennie to practice, Loonie to do whatever it was that Loonie did to ensure she passed her classes.

Two days later, as the March winds scoured the last bits of dried October leaves from the landscape oaks around town, Jennie sat on the airbus headed for home. She stared at the piece of paper with the number grade of her final exam slashed in red ink across the top: 8.5. Numbed by the sheer impossibility of the grade, she sat in silence. Never had she received a mark lower than 9.5 on anything. Even penmanship back in third grade.

She was beyond the point in the tragedy where she repeatedly asked herself how this had happened. She knew how it happened. In the middle section of her final challenge—the solo duet in “Unraveling Ravel,” where the performer sings along with herself—she jumped to the third instead of the prescribed perfect fifth for the vocal harmony. And with that capricious move came all the emotion the third entails. Not only was it a mortal sin at this late date, when every schoolgirl should play a solo note-for-note like an ice skater carving the figure eight countless times on top of itself with nary a skew, but the choice of a third to be the point of the revolution was nothing short of, well, revolting. After that she might as well have come waltzing in with a wholly-owned new piece of music. The damage for changing an “as written” was the same.

Not that writing music was against the law or anything. Just that around the turn of the previous century, it dawned on people that nobody had come up with anything original in two hundred years. New music represented a mere rehash of older ideas. The glory days were over. The big recording companies took note of the situation and fired all their uncreative songwriters and composers and fat copyright lawyers and went on to make more money in the tribute band arena than even they had dreamt about. Nobody wrote any more music after that.

Jennie stared at the stain on the paper in her hand, worrying for her future. Suddenly the airbus jolted to a stop to let passengers board, momentarily rousing Jennie from her gloom. She looked up. Through the moving line of arriving passengers she could see an old woman standing outside on the corner dressed in black. The woman seemed to be staring at Jennie and even at this distance it was obvious the old woman had a dead eye capable of seeing into the future. The airbus jumped into motion again and continued on its journey.

Once in her room on Denison Street, she tossed the Boehm in its black leather case onto the bed, flopping next to it, face forward, without removing her spring slicker. She lay staring at the faux-linoleum floor tiles until she heard her next-door neighbors slamming the door, signaling their return home to start supper and the nightly bicker session.

Jennie reached up to the wall unit next to the bed and pushed the “send” button.

“Who?” the unit asked.

“Loonie,” she answered.

The line remained silent until Loonie on her end, pushed the answer button and said, “What’s up?”

“I, uh, I’d like to go out tonight. Are you doing anything?”

“Whoohoo!” Loonie hollered. “Let’s Ceeeeeelebrate good times, C’mon!” Loonie sang out from the middle of the room, probably dancing on the furniture.

“Cut that out or I’m not going. I hate that song,” Jennie yelled into her speaker.

“Okay, okay, okay. I’ll pick you up at seven. I got a great little place for you. Strictly hush-hush. It’s a blind pig.”

“I’m not really hungry. I was hoping we’d go get drunk.”

“Not to worry, hon. It’s a speakeasy, but we’ll talk later and don’t forget to erase this conversation.”

“Uh.”

“See you at seven.” Loonie clicked off.

“Uh.”

At seven-thirty-two on the dot, the drone buzz of the downstairs call-up signaled Loonie’s arrival. By seven-thirty-eight Loonie had packed Jennie into the back seat of an unmarked cab, inside of which sat a couple of characters of the male persuasion.

Loonie made the appropriate introductions. Apparently their names were Raif and Tonál. Raif, the guy that was sorting out to be Jennie’s date, smiled at her. The inside of the cab was almost completely dark, and she wouldn’t have known he smiled at all except that he had a gold tooth which reflected just enough light from a passing street lamp to show his lips. Was that tooth shaped like a fang? No, it was just her imagination. If Jennie was insecure about going to what she thought Loonie had said was a sleaze-easy, going with someone of the opposite sex with teeth made out of metal, drove her to near panic. She racked her brains for a good opening line.

“What’s your major?” She cringed as soon as she said it.

The boy, or man, or wolf, laughed. Thank god the only light in the cab came from that tooth so nobody could see how red her face was.

“These cats don’t go to school, Jen,” Loonie butted into the conversation. “They’re in the band.”

“Oh,” Jennie answered, as if being in a band was an excuse not to participate in life’s activities. Not to go to church, for example—on a par with being a conscientious objector or a vegetarian. One didn’t have to do what everyone else did if one was in a band. For some odd reason it didn’t occur to Jennie that she herself was in a band.

There were a few more gold-glinting smiles and uncomfortable conversation starts—comments on the weather and such—with no help from Loonie who was slurping at her partner’s face the whole ride until the chatty group reached their destination. The cab pulled up in front of a brownstone, flanked on each side by identical brownstones. Jennie noticed the name of the street was “Ludlow” and realized she had no idea where she was. A wrought iron fence ran down the length of the sidewalk in front of the houses and the boys made a big show of opening the gate for their ladies. As she passed through, Loonie, in turn, made a big show of stopping to apply lipstick using the glow of a nearby retro gaslamp in her compact mirror.

“Want some?” she asked Jennie, handing the tube over.

“No thanks,” Jennie answered. “I can’t wear that and play. It’s like trying to whistle through wax lips.”

“You’re not playing tonight, Sweetie.”

“Thanks anyway.”

The group bustled inside and the boys escorted Loonie and Jennie to the “band table,” ordering a round of comp beers before jumping up to the stage.

The room, packed by patrons sitting six to eight at tiny oil-rubbed oak tables, was lit by candlelight. Incense mixing with stinky perfume and pomade permeated the air. The room smelled like smoked Vicks and Jennie worried about damage to her lungs. She left her coat on until Loonie admonished her to stop fussing, relax, enjoy, and take a swig. Finally the band dug in.

From the moment the first trombone sliced through the trademark intro and the big bass drum slapped down on the one, Jennie was blown away. It was all she could do to stay in her seat. But nobody else was dancing so she didn’t either. They all stuck by their tables, screaming and singing with the band, feet stomping on the floor, hands clapping, heads bobbing in whiplash timing. Once in a while somebody stood up and did a couple of steps, ground against a wall pole, or slapped a knee, but nobody danced as the band assaulted the stand, swaying back and forth to punctuate the rhythm. The standing bass twirled his big guitar, the piano player trounced the keys, the saxes lifted their instruments up on the squeal notes.

The first set—the show set—swept Jennie away. During a lull, she leaned over into Loonie’s face and demanded to know where this music had come from. She’d never heard it before. “Who wrote it?” she asked.

“It’s not written, you jerk,” Loonie answered. “They make it up as they go along.”

“Isn’t that illegal?” Jennie said.

“No, it’s not. It’s just not done,” Loonie laughed. “Man, you are really square.”

The second set was the dance set. By now all the undercover cops had gone, satisfied that no illegal dancing was going on, so everybody jumped up raring to go. A couple of goofy college guys wearing mobster hats and smoking alpha cigars dropped by Jennie and Loonie’s table. Jennie, by now committed to the scene, hopped up without giving a thought to the poor union dancers and how she was taking bread out of their mouths by doing her own hoofing. She was on her fourth comped beer by this time and kicking higher than anybody.

The evening continued in this sweaty vein until around three when Loonie dragged Jennie out by the slicker tails to the all-night bus stop. Raif and the boys were still going strong thanks to chemical enhancers passed to them by loyal followers, but it was officially a school night so the girls somehow talked themselves into going home. They tearfully said “g’night,” to their heroes and swam home in a puddle of sweat, alcohol, and rain. A spring shower had commenced sometime during the night.

A blistering hangover developed the next day, but Jennie smiled through the pain. New music she’d never heard before existed in the world. Fresh music. Sinful and unmemorized. Virginal.

She sat on the toilet and evacuated her bowels for the first time in weeks. Nothing works on the impacted quite like skunky beer.

She excused herself from her classes claiming an intestinal virus, and spent the day in bed. She tried listening to Mahler, Babich, Rose, even her favorite—Tchaikovsky. They were nice, but she kept her finger on the tuner and flipped through the selections of piped-in music showing up on the view board. She searched for something she had never heard before but for some odd reason knew was there. She stopped on each milli-Hz band and listened for a hint of sound emerging from the static.

Finally at the high end of the spectrum—the black bar end, the section that requires parental guidance—lay the unnamed, uncatalogued 20th offerings. She had never listened to anything from this section. Hadn’t bothered to study anything beyond the monotony of Philip Glass, John Williamson, and Elvis. It was frowned upon for one thing. Not only was it ridiculed and maligned in public opinion, it was rated X and had to be paid for.

She picked through the unfamiliar names and stopped on one—Basie at Saranoff Hall. She had no idea what it was but she selected it, punched in her debit code, and lay back into the pillows of her headboard within arm’s reach of the Alka Seltzer.

She soaked in the music the entire day, shelling out her last few weeks of food allowance. Boehm kept packed away in its case. She made life-changing resolutions—promises to study newfound musical forms and get out a little more.

The next day, of course, hangover and money gone, constipation settling in again, she slammed back to reality and the 8.5 she’d received two days previously. She got up early and punished herself for her day of truancy by practicing nothing but études in C—no sharps or flats—for several hours.

She did penance in this way for the next few days, practicing major scales down one mode and up another, circling through the fifths. Each day she exercised through the entire set of microtones before even taking a sip of water. For sustenance she ate oyster crackers or whatever she could scrape from the walls of her cold unit—leftovers from days gone by when the food allowance had not yet run out. She avoided the Student Union and Loonie like an albino avoids the sun. She dropped ten pounds and urinated hourly.

Finally the eve before the big final performance came. She felt like she was on the edge of a precipice. Everyone else thought so as well. Her periodic weeping and flailing and praying to God to exorcise the sinful thoughts of free music from her head left her red-eyed and pale. Professor Linn stopped her on her way out of the final sectional.

“What’s wrong, Jennifer?” she asked. “You look terrible.”

As soon as the last student had exited, Jennie broke down and cried. “I am so, so sorry, Dr. Linn. I have sinned. I have strayed. I don’t deserve to be here.”

Dr. Linn closed the door to the practice room. “Uh, what’s with the dramatics?”

Jennie told her teacher the whole story of the night at the no name club, the intestinal flue lie, and the improvised music.

Seeing how miserable Jennie was, Dr. Linn stifled the laugh that threatened to erupt from within. She hugged her protégé close and invited her home to supper, explaining how everyone “dabbles.”

“It’s okay,” Dr. Linn said later at dinner. “It’s important, in fact, to sample the other side. It’s unhealthy to never experiment or wonder.” She recounted her own dabblings wistfully, pointing out that Jennie had a serious career in a fast, high-paying field. She was desired by all the BSes, and why not just put this little insurrection behind her?

Having confessed her story to Dr. Linn, Jennie’s spirits lifted. Especially after hearing the bit about the BSes. Of course a double helping of pork chops with gravy plopped onto a mound of mashed potatoes, buttered wax beans on the side, did its part as well. She departed for home stuffed and gladdened, and practiced her part in the next day’s performance for four hours before lying down from exhaustion.

Unfortunately as soon as the lights went out, Benny Goodman popped into her head. And no amount of finger exercises got him out of it. She slept a mere half hour before the biggest, most important day of her life.

The exam performance was scheduled for noon. Jennie spent the morning visualizing. She sat cross-legged facing the mirror, eyes closed and humming her part. She became one with her instrument, even as it lay untouched in its case, unassembled. She became her instrument, breathing the air inside the tube. Its melody was in her and it was her. By 10 a.m. she was ready. She dressed in her performance uniform, black gabardine slacks with matching dress jacket, white ruffled shirt, make-up—no lipstick—combed and sprayed hair, glossy eye shadow, garnet earrings, powdered neck, shined shoes. Finally she removed to the symphony hall.

The place was filled with parents. Hers were there somewhere as well. (They’d flown in the night before, but as per Institute guidelines in order to avoid bad luck omens, did not visit with their kid before the performance.) She’d meet them afterwards for lunch at The Songbird so Mom and Pop could tell her how wonderful she was and how proud they were.

The performance was a blur. Later she couldn’t tell much about it or when the idea hit her. Everybody including Jennie was playing perfectly up to the point of the indiscretion. Her duet with herself went off quite well in the first half—she received a standing ovation. Numbers of nametag-wearing recruits scribbled continuously on pocket pads.

But just after that something inside Jennie struck.

The second half began with the violins warming everything up. The kettle drum revved. The cymbal woke the members of the audience who were dozing. Then the French horns took it all back down. The audience lulled. The orchestra swelled and then quelled. It was time for the second Boehm duet—the dramatic dreamy section symbolizing the death of the nightingale. It has been said that this nocturne is the saddest, most moving music that has ever been written. Jennie was crying even before she raised her instrument to her lips and took in a breath. She began and became one with the instrument. Its breath was her breath, and the melody came from within her, the notes sounding like the weeping of a stricken soul. At the start of the duet she obediently raised her voice to the fifth but then quick as an eyelid flutter, dropped back to an incorrect flatted third. The conductor looked at her, he couldn’t believe his ears. The audience collectively gasped. They too knew this piece by heart. Jennie dropped the Boehm completely and sang the remainder of the duet (solo at this point) alone, vocalizing the tormented bird’s song. The audience was mesmerized. The other players, astonished, stopped their quiet accompaniment altogether. Jennie, with her naked voice, stood alone in death. Tears streamed from her eyes as she communicated the nightingale’s pain.

When it was over, after the bird had expired and all that was left was the broken-hearted lover leaping to his death courtesy of the shocked but obedient remainder of the orchestra, the hall was silent. Finally one child in the front row sniffed back a tear. The audience let out its breath. Someone’s dad started clapping and immediately everyone else joined in. They hooted and hollered. Most jumped to their feet. Only Jennie’s parents and the BS talent scouts remained silently seated.

Jennie stood up, bowed, and walked off. As she moved past the conductor, he snarled, “You’ll never get any work!”

“I hope not,” Jennie answered over her shoulder.

The rest is not recorded history, of course. Jennie’s parents eventually forgave her and invited her over for Thanksgiving.

Loonie, the straight C student, stood by her friend and applauded her and, in fact, got her in with Raif’s band. Jennie dated Raif for a while—hypnotized by the gold tooth and all—but eventually broke up with him and started her own little combo, playing the blind pig circuit, never recognized by the legitimate music-loving public. But she built up a huge following in the hip crowd who consistently showed up for her shows, passing her “enhancements” throughout the sweaty nights to keep her “head straight.” Loonie sat in once in a while. She had a permanent gig with one of a LKSes (Lesser-Known Symphonies) but snuck out for a hoot with Jennie’s group every once in a while, breaking a few clauses in her contract. Nobody ratted her out though.

Many, many years later they both died of natural causes. Naturally, bad beer mixed with unindexed chemicals would kill you.

Two years after Jennie Knot’s death, her underground followers, which was practically everybody by that time, started a movement, got a representative elected to Congress, and a law enacted to promote the writing of music once again. Funds were allocated for research and fellowships granted. Three hundred years later, pop artists became the behemoths they once were back in the primitive twenty-first century and the music naturally degraded into a multimillion dollar industry again. As before, pop music was churned out at a rate of a bad song a day and played on the air waves until the puking populace took to the streets and started flailing songwriters and industry execs alive. Inevitably a new music law was passed banning the writing of music and that’s why thankfully today, we have no new music.

 

Book Review: Tritcheon Hash

TritcheonHashby Michael D. Pederson

 

Tritcheon Hash
Sue Lange
Metropolis Ink, 228 pp.

Here’s a darn good first novel that’s worth picking up. Tritcheon Hash is a speed-crazed military test pilot, she’s happily married with two kids, and she’s about to be assigned to a top secret spy mission. The catch? Hash lives on the all female planet of Coney Island (named for the ancient Irish penal colony). It’s the year 3011 and all women have become fed up with the violent behavior of men and left the Earth. Now, after several hundred years of isolation, there is talk of reunification and Tritcheon Hash must slip through Earth’s defenses to spy on the planet of men. This is, of course, pure parody. The humor ranges from subtle tongue-in-cheek to all-out zany madcap. The basic story is silly and the supporting characters are a little two-dimensional but it’s mostly funny and when it’s not the strong figure of Hash carries the story through any rough spots. Along her adventures Hash befriends one male, makes a bitter enemy of another, and takes a quick tour of war-torn Earth. Lange uses the humor to get across a few simple pacifist/feminist points without seeming preachy. In the end though it is a story of love, sacrifice, and personal growth that climaxes in an emotionally poignant sequence that brings the story to a satisfying close. There never seems to be enough good science fiction satire on the market, so it’s pleasing to see a talented new writer entering the field.