This Music, Excerpt IV

 

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Palo Alto, Fall 1963

Fred

The door to his apartment was ajar. Judith was inside. She looked like hell. She was chewing her fingernails. He hated it when she chewed her fingernails. When she looked up at him he had a sense of her face being black and white, going out of focus as if he were at the beginning of a home movie with a maladroit projectionist.

"I think the President’s been shot," she said.

Her faced wavered as if drawn in smudgy, gray charcoal on some liquid. Glue maybe.

"What?"

The radio was on.

"I think the President’s been shot." She began to cry. He at once was scared and in motion as if there had been no appreciable duration between the blows and the frantic erection of a wall to meet it, like the closing of a solenoid. Yet in the dimensionless, small duration, a terrible cold fear got through to him as if the earth had turned to mud under sidewalks of the city. In motion to his tape recorder, to his wires, to what the radio was saying, but he could hear its tone saying it was ignorant and anxious with the desperate voice of genuine disaster, the voice he remembered the announcers using when the Korean war began. The phono jacks and the knobs and the buttons ran away under his fingers as if they were drawings and did not obey the usual physical laws, but other laws based on the deception of perspective and the disappearance of lines behind certain objects called, for that reason, three-dimensional.

"What are you dong?"

"You don’t think something like this happens every day, do you?" Fred answered.

Judith continued to sit on his couch. For once he didn’t feel her eyes. The tape broke threading, then he got it in. The two wheels were turning evenly and the ribbon of tape passing infinitely thin between them, like some old myth of the thread of life or the river of time, turning as two millstones with a line threaded smoothly between them that is so thin that when it is directly on edge it cannot be seen at all, like the slice of the perfectly sharp razor in the colored joke ("shake your head"). When he looked at it with both eyes he saw a line because of the deception of perspective, but when he closed one eye it disappeared. On which line, in ferric oxide, rust, the timeless symbol of decay, his patient mechanism could inscribe everything. Not until also the telltale inhuman, rhythmic, bouncy flickering of the little green light modulated with the human voices, more human than voices, told him that the voices were being inscribed, trapped in this electrical network, could he begin to hear what they said.

They were standing outside a hospital in Dallas. They said the president was inside. They said Jack Kennedy was inside the hospital and was terrible. They said the governor of Texas had also been shot and maybe others. Not Jackie. Not that simpering, skinny mannequin shrew. The Vice President had been seen going up the hospital steps holding his arm.

Fred was scared himself. He felt as if he might be next. From this point on, Fred reacted to the events of the weekend on two levels. To others and to himself, he reacted and talked and answered in his usual way, but perhaps a little more contemptuous and demanding than usual as everyone's character eroded under the strain. But another kind of mental life always existed in Fed, a life of visionary hostility. Perhaps it exists in all of us, but in him it was always near the surface. It was a way of seeing what we normally call life as a thin skin stretched over a world empty of individuals or trust and inhabited only by anonymous, brutal impulses like a flexible, plastic tent bulging and living with a catch of barracuda. As if the city were inhabited not by men with names (for to introduce yourself is an act of trust), but by lions and tigers, Bacchic in the terrible sense, or of rhinoceroses if you will. As the physical embodiment of his normal life was conversation, striving, relationships, his communication with others, his desiring certain things from them and giving them, so the physical embodiment of the world of brutal, empty anonymity in which he lived were the wires, the plugs and jacks, the endlessly imprinting tapes, which were a wall between him and abolition, which continued to prove that he existed, stamping continuously on the passing rust a pattern that was monumental and uniquely his because he had made it and it would not exist except for him, and utterly unrevealing of his presence because it was entirely created by someone else and so the perfect disguise, defense and wall, a wall, which was not only impenetrable but could not even be seen because it was no different from everything around it. Not only was this wall the perfect defense but an offense as well for it threw back at the world exactly whatever attacked it, like Perseus’ shield.

"What are you doing?"

"I’m trying to tune the fucking radio station better."

"You don’t know if he comes back from school for lunch?"

"Most people don’t have classes on Friday afternoon. With all that music, he might practice or something."

"What are you doing?"

"Do the other stations have the same thing?"

"These people seemed to know something."

The controls of the radio and the recorder were capable of an infinite multiplication of adjustments. Someone announced that someone else had definitely asserted that the president had been shot. Tangential overlapping, groove-etched, number-embellished circles of getting rightness. As a stack of colored discs, which, if superimposed in the right way, would spell out something in black on a polychrome modern cut glass church window background. Spell out what? Not ‘Fred.’ It would be offensive to spell out his own name. Offensive meant the knowers would talk it. A message. What message? To whom? About what? The radio began saying the police were putting a cordon around part of Dallas. And inside that cordon would be running loose, what? And what made them think it was not running loose over the country now, that the police were not running loose, that it would not cordon us, that it would not enter here? Turning the dials, which seemed to jiggle in his hands like compasses, turning them as if by a series of intersecting compass needles he would draw lines, infinitely, extensive, showing his infinite proliferation through things, much admired, and would define the center. Defined by the green light of the cathode, which, when for a transient moment all settings were right, would have just the ratio of brilliance of shadow and track, embody, be the voices, like a more-perfect-than-possible dancer, more perfect than possible because of not seeking the advantages without difference? Or the slight difference, which the partner suffers without comprehension from imperfection?

"What do you think will happen?"

"Depends on how bad he’s hurt," he said reasonably. If he were dead only the wires could combine the current of fear.

"What if he’s hurt bad?"

"The general’s might take over. It depends on how bad the Vice President is hurt. Maybe the Commies are shooting everybody."

"They’re all so disgusting," Judith said. "Why do they even want to do such things? Why aren’t they innocent?"

Fred stood up from the recorder. It was going fine. What to do now? He went to the closet and counted how much tape he had that was either blank or could be erased. About 8 hours, that should do it. He pushed his hand into the back of the drawer. The alertness of animals who never sit down without sniffing for danger.

He went back in. The radio was going over what had happened. Though he could not remember hearing it step-by-step, the repetition bored him and made him anxious. Maybe another station would be more informative, or television. There was a television in the coffee house; it was the only one around. He did not want to go in there.

"Do you know when Gregory will be back?" he asked Judith.

"No. I came down early on my own."

Fred went over to the stove and put on some water for tea. The radio said a policeman had been shot. Violence was spreading in Dallas. The instinct of animals. The inner world was real. His inner world was wriggling out of him like the stomach of a frightened echinoderm.

"Why aren’t you there?"

"When I heard about it I wanted to talk to you."

"He has a radio."

She shushed him. The announcer repeated that a policeman had been shot and said there was no news from the hospital. The announcer switched to another announcer at the hospital.

"Would he mind if I took it?"

"You want his radio?"

"Would he mind? If I took it, would he mind?"

"No. He’s very generous with his things," Judith said.

"Let me check," he said. He went to his closet and got out a pair of earphones, connected them to the tape player so that he could listen to the finished recording while the recording process itself continued. It sounded fine. The announcer repeated that a policeman had been shot and said there was no news from the hospital, then handed the burden of filling the clamoring air over to another announcer.

Fred put down the earphones and went out his front door. He closed the door carefully behind him. He had an impulse to lock it. He felt very exposed in the courtyard, as if he might be strafed by a low flying plane or identified as a suspect by a prowl car. Surely he had missed some order to remain indoors. Surely, armed, suspicious men in helmets were stalking the trespassers and vagrants, the usual suspects. He hardly dared walk up the flight of outside stairs to Gregory’s apartment. Maybe Gregory had come back, or Buff, and they would feel or do some unspeakable thing to him when they saw him in the doorway. Or would someone in the courtyard below seeing him going upstairs against the white wall think him a thief or worse. He walked nonchalantly up the stairs but stayed close to the white-washed stucco. The door was open. Inside was the weird silence of the giant’s castle when he is asleep. The wire princess was on a coffee table. When he looked over the wiring, he realized that Judith had not understood that the radio was only a tuner and played through the record player. He tried to turn it on but he did not understand the wiring. It was vexing and troublesome, and he was constantly worried that someone would come in and find him. He would have trouble explaining this.

Finally he found that the radio was switched through the phonograph. He got it going. He hurried from one station to another as the announcer’s on the station went back and forth from one another. Maybe if he tuned right he would find that the networks were switching back and forth between the same announcers. He had noticed how the non-network stations had continued their regular programs, mostly music, with interruptions with news flashes of non-information. They were as garbled, frightened, and fantastic as his own thoughts. It made them frightening. The networks did not give you a feeling they knew what was going on, but they were on the scene, fingers on the button. If the powers that be discovered or released anything they would get it quick. Maybe there were no longer any powers. It made him more confident to listen to the big networks. He hurried, trailing wires down the outside stairs and into his apartment.

A commentator came on and summarized events. He said the Vice President had disappeared. That gave Fred the shivers. It was Texas. Maybe the Vice President had tried to have Kennedy killed. Well, if so, let him have his wish. Better a civil coup than anarchy. The announcer said the President’s wound was apparently grave. That meant death. Fred thought he caught the shadow of someone passing the window by the door. He waited for the door to open. Except for the radio, the city seemed absolutely still. Finally, when he felt it would be ridiculous if he didn’t, he went to the door and opened it a crack. What if someone caught him doing that? Empty. The landing and the stairs and the courtyard were empty. Diffused gray light showed everything. The flagstones in the courtyard were dark. There was a gentle, damp, cold wind. He went back in. It would be better if he could monitor the radio continuously and sit in on anything that broke on any network. He could play Gregory’s radio through his phonograph, record directly from his radio. He began disconnecting the wires. Someone might come in, and how would he defend himself? Police even; they might be searching everywhere at a time like this or the national guard to prevent looting. He had no identification on him.

"Did you find out anything?" Judith asked.

"No."

"Do you think that Gregory will go to classes this afternoon?"

"I don’t know."

"Do you have a class this afternoon?"

He was seething in the wires. Angels came and went in his sight like projected mechanical drawings.

"I’m not going," he said. He redoned his earphones to check the recording. The process put him about five seconds behind the live broadcast and shut out all sounds except those that had come, five seconds before, through the radio. Judith, in the outer, silent world, mimed something terrible to him with her mouth. He felt safe from her. He smiled at her and pointed at the earphones. She rolled out flat on the bed and rolled over to face the wall with her back to him. The announcer in his ear said... "at 2:56 P.M., the President of the United States was pronounced dead from gunshot wounds in the head and neck..." Fred took off the earphones. It snapped him up to the present time and he could not understand at first what the announcer was now saying. Judith was crying. Both radios were now playing loud, but he had not yet tuned Gregory’s so music played from off the network, a big band arrangement of the Merry Widow waltz. There was a lot of noise, the music, the incomprehensible announcer, Judith crying, but he had a feeling of profound silence, as if he were in the center of a refrigerator. He felt that at this instant in the time of the world, anything might happen. Any horror hinted at in the wildest imaginings of the prophets could live. The very fabric of natural law, inevitability, logic, in which he believed man and the world existed as insects embedded in transparent plastic, might crack or turn to sand and allow the entrance and the encouragement of maggots that fed upon being itself. The moment protracted itself as if the threatened substance of time and being were stretching. The incomprehensible words of the present-time announcer came like gobs of thick corn-syrup. Then the announcement he had just heard interrupted the music on the second station. "...dead." Fred knew that. He had heard that before. The redundancy restored time. He stood up.

"I was afraid of that," he said.

Judith rolled over. "That’s what I was trying to tell you," she said. "Couldn’t you hear?"

"He turned off the sound on Gregory’s radio. "How is the Vice President?" he asked.

"Couldn’t you hear me?"

"Have they gotten anybody else?"

"Do you think Greg will come back now?"

"Where the hell do you suppose McNamara is?"

"Should we call mom?"

"What the hell for?"

"To tell her we’re all right; to find out if she’s all right."

"Not on my phone bill!"

"Do you think phones are working?"

"Not on my bill."

Judith sat up. She bunched her fists. "You’re a bastard, you know. Have I ever told you what a bastard you are?"

"You’ve spared no opportunity. You aren’t exactly lovable yourself."

"Have you no respect for anything? Do you believe that everyone is like you and has no heart?"

"I respect common sense."

"You respect your backbone. The only thing you care about is keeping your back stiff."
Fred did not reply. He was trying to hear something about the Vice President. Judith turned her back on him and started toward the door.

"Is Gregory’s apartment open?"

"Yes."

"I’m going to see if he’s home."

"Shut up," he said. He was trying to decide, for God’s sake, whether he should start recording on the other station.

She turned back into the room. "You’re hopeless," she said in a matter of fact tone. She grabbed his shoulder and pulled him around to face her. What a bother she had always been.

"Let me tell you something; you’re hopeless. There is no hope for you. No hope!" she screamed. "Someone else could wiggle out of your skin. He’s dead, you’re in your skins!" She began to cry. "That’s why I hate you, because you’re hopeless. If there were any hope you might turn into a loving being, I would love you. I love mom, I love dad, I love Jug and there is hope for them. I loved him." She gestured toward the radio. "I would love a dog." She began hitting him on the chest. "But I won’t love you. He lived. You’re dead. You are the color he is."

"Oh, God, skip it," he said. He grabbed her arms and held her still in front of him. She fought and writhed her whole body.

"Talk about it. Someone like you must have killed him. I don’t know who had the power, but someone like you must have pulled the trigger. He died because of someone like you. Tell me, boy, how does it feel?"

"Get the fuck out of here and don’t come back until you can act like a decent human being. If by any chance that pointless Bohemian you fawn over is namby-pamby and high-toned enough to teach you to act like a normal human being and to talk sense, then I wish him good luck. He at least has manners." He let go of her, pushing her backwards. She turned around and left slamming the door behind her.

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