Friday, March 18, 2011

FICTION: Reverb by Jonathan Fredrick Parks

When you sign your name they never tell you how much your world will change. Two signatures, a day out cold and kiss that restless solitude goodbye. No going back. Weekly checkups are a must for the first year. The cells connected to the personal player could spread and integrate with the part of your brain that keeps short-term memories. There have been four cases of that happening. They warn you about that. What they don't say is how quiet everything else becomes. The distracting sounds of two drunks talking in a bar, the shrill cry of an infant in the theater, the annoying clink of silverware hitting plates—all overpowered by the music playing in your head.

Yet, I've heard someone sing before—a real song and a real voice, not the perfect toned musician that dubs over my voice when I try to sing—and what better noise could a man hear? I had just left work and had places to be. I asked her how she got by without a player. Constance said that she sang her own songs. I called her crazy but she sang to prove me wrong. I couldn't believe my ears. The playful music of Tchaikovsky's “Overture” took second fiddle to her rapid fire lyrics. Some words blended together and not everything rhymed, but the strange union of sounds held me in awe.

“I know. I'm terrible,” she said interrupting the second chorus.

“You're a natural,” I lied.

“No.” She stopped, turned towards me and smiled. “I mean, I make a living selling something I don't believe in. Horrible, isn't it?”

As I attempted to sleep that night my mind raced with thoughts Constance and her song. I wondered how she became who she was. Not many people lived without players. Even the poor could get corporate-sponsored installation with the agreement of allowing intermittent ads to be played throughout the day. I had mine installed when I joined the company for less than half the normal cost.

The next day I arrived to work twenty-two minutes early. I’m always early. I must have done something right for I crossed paths with Constance at the entrance.

“Hey.” I meant to say 'good morning'. Mozart's “Requiem” kicked in giving me the needed boost—a battle cry for victory—but I had already begun.

“Good morning,” she said with a yawn. She smelled like cherries and wine.

“You're early today.” I rushed to hit the elevator button first.

“Yeah. My cat woke me at four this morning and I couldn't get back to sleep.”

“You have a cat? I used to have a dog. It died.”

“Oh.” She frowned. Chopin's “Funeral March” followed. “I'm sorry.”

The silver elevator doors opened and she entered first. We both worked on the fourth floor. I worked in tech support with thirty other people. She worked across the hall in customer care. Our jobs were pretty much the same—we both spent our day learning of new ways for humanity to go astray—only I dealt more with the technical side of things. I wasn’t good at dealing with people. I should have been an actor. The doors closed and the elevator started up.

We were alone.

“Do you eat lunch?” stumbled from my mouth.

“What was that?” She gave me a look.

“Well, uh.” I stammered trying my best to recover. A jarring Gnossienne overtook the soothing Ave Maria. “You care to grab some lunch later?”

“What did you have in mind?”

“I was planning on grabbing a sandwich at Alleyways.”

She waited for the doors to open before answering. “Sure.”

Oh Blessed Ode to Joy, my heart celebrated in unison, each beat hitting a note and composing a new song, and yet I wasn't sure why. She seemed like a nice girl, but not that nice. I conceded to be happy—back to Ave Maria. I hated how it would never finish a song until the next song had already begun.

We took separate cars to Alleyways. I arrived first and asked for a table for two. It took four minutes for the host to seat me in a booth set for four. I waited alone, listening to Haydn and the conversation of a disgruntled couple that sat to my left. The woman's whiny voice almost ruined it, but I found it pleasurable when the man scolded her calling her an embarrassment to her mother.

“Sorry for the wait.” I noticed her pink lips as she talked. “I was held up.”

“They just sat me,” I said.

The waiter stopped by and asked what she wanted to drink. She said she was ready to order. I ordered a Reuben with mustard instead of Thousand Island dressing and she got a BLT without mayo. She told me she never heard of getting mustard on a Reuben. For some reason Handel's “Hallelujah” played during the discourse.

“Write any new songs?” I asked while she played with the pepper shaker.

“Nah.” She seemed to blush, but I wasn't certain. “I don't really write songs. I just make them up as I go.” She shook her head and buried it in her arms and bounced back like a spring. “I usually don't share my songs in front of other people.”

“You don’t have anything to hide. You are a good singer. I'm more impressed knowing that you made it up on the spot.”

The waiter returned with her iced tea. I waited for her to say something but got distracted by the quarreling couple as they started getting into it again.

She told me something serious, but I couldn't hear her over all the noise.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I miss it at times.”

“Miss what?”


I didn't understand.

“That's why I create my own songs. They're probably not really mine.” Her slender lips curved downward. “I can't remember.”

“When did you stop listening?”

“Back in high school? No, I can't remember exactly. It was about the same time that the first of the neural personal soundtrack players started to come out. It's not that I lost interest in music or anything. Did you know I once wanted to be a musician?”

“No, but I could see that. I think you would make a great musician.”

“Well I…” The noise inside my head seemed to increase making it hard to follow. I caught one line at the end. “We all are too occupied with our own songs to listen to others.”

“I heard you.”

The waiter returned, bringing our sandwiches with him. Constance began her assault on hers while I proceeded to trim the excess sauerkraut from mine.

“You may not know,” I said while preparing my sandwich, “but that song you sang—I heard it loud and clear and with it came the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky. Sure, the tempo was off and the tones didn't match just right, but for a moment there I couldn't help but think they were made to go together. I consider myself lucky for being able to hear your song.”

She set her sandwich back on her plate. A stray strand of lettuce hung from her upper lip until her tongue reeled it in. A playful rendition of the clarinet polka faded in and back out. My blood rushed in anticipation as Brahm's “Hungarian Dance No.5” took over.

She smirked briefly before speaking. “Were you even listening to me?”

“Wha...” She caught me off-guard. Mendelssohn's Wedding March took the stage making things feel awkward. “I um...”

“Thought so.”

I let out a sigh. I focused on Bach's “Jesu” while making short work of my Reuben. After finishing her own food she said she had to hurry back. She handed me some cash and left me to cover the bill. As I watched her walk out, a strange and deviant tune played in my mind. For the rhythm I heard a heavy drum thumping in time. A shrill buzz picked up the melody accompanied by the sound of colliding waves. I heard winds and whirling blades, clinging ticks and clanging collisions of metal on glass, offbeat to the uneven tapping of my own feet. I felt panic as the sounds permeated my soul, but the beat slowed and so did my heart. I took a deep breath and listened as I breathed.

“Ah, so that’s what it was,” I whispered to myself.

The couple spoke to each other affectionately. I looked at their table and wondered what happened to their harsh arguing. Everything looked the same, but I felt as though the world rotated at a few degrees off from where it should. I pulled out my play monitor and saw that Brahm's “Symphony No. 2” was playing, but I couldn't hear it. My back fell against the booth's cushion and I started to laugh. I had never laughed so loud. A few eyes looked my way, but most went on eating as though their world ended beyond the confines of their own table. I wiped my damp eyes and smiled. It had been too long. I had forgotten what silence sounded like.


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