The Failure


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.”


“See you at seven.” Loonie clicked off.


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.