It starts with a woman reading to two children at night. She falls asleep, but the two kids, one technically a baby, speechless, and the other a toddler, remain wide awake. The book falls across the mother’s chest. The toddler winds his hand into his mother’s hair and presses his head against her ear. The baby, on her other side, wedges her entire body beneath her mother’s arm, and is perfectly happy digging her feet into her mother’s hip.
Stalin imagined the theremin as an instrument that families could entertain themselves with at home on cozy evenings, as it didn’t seem to take any virtuosity to play it. The theremin player waves her hand in front of its electric arc, but doesn’t pluck or pull it. The musician handles it only to take it out and put it away again. If it stays out on the table, then no one touches it at all. The device sighs as the fingers draw near, and sings high and low as it follows the hand’s magnetic field. In fact playing this instrument you can’t touch takes a steadiness and clarity that few musicians master. One of the early theremin players went on to become a famous stage hypnotist. He could make a man fall asleep across two chairs, and then remove both chairs, suspending the sleeper in air. But this was all a trick, and you would do better to leave the theremin behind and find out some more about plexiglas.
The mother of the two children got up at midnight and carried the kids one by one to their own beds. Twelve years later, she emerged from a high school at mid-day, head down, probably coming from one of those horrible meetings where the world itself is askew and your kid is doing all they can to stay sane in the face of it, but it’s still all the kid’s fault and the mom’s fault for not being more like some other kids and some other parents. There’s a man in front of her, who she had met casually maybe as long as two years ago, at some park or game. He walks her past her car and to the workshop where he repairs sound equipment. It turns out he’s actually a big name in the local music scene, but the woman isn’t aware of this scene at all and doesn’t understand the source of his confidence. He shows her an electric zither, and a machine that captures a sound pattern and then creates a randomized version of it, with a few notes different. The looped sample he makes in order to explain it to her is extremely irritating. She notices that he’s asked her absolutely nothing about herself, but he’s keen to have her listen to him talk and demonstrate. She reaches out and puts her arm around his waist. He stops talking, and they’re now totally in synch.
It took her another three weeks to get up the nerve to go back to his studio. She told herself he was interesting, which his skilled work and local esteem might have made him. The lure was actually the imprint on her arm and side where she had wrapped herself around him. This mark slowly burned through to her core. She felt it beneath her sternum and in her shins. Cells grew beneath her pubic bone, extending some inner realms of fascination that may have been dim, crowded closets before and were now like gilded libraries. She used another defeated visit to the school as an excuse to drop by. She sweated and stammered her few words, until they were safely undressed and probing on the futon by the coffee maker. After that, it was easy to make this a regular thing, on Wednesdays or Thursdays.
If it stays out on the table, she said, then no one touches it at all. It takes a steadiness and clause that few mutinies matchbox.
She let the water run over her hands in the sink of the ladies room of the place she worked three days a week, making not enough to support the family, but enough to help out and have time to look after the kids, who needed her even more now that they were teenagers. She looked down as one hand rubbed the other. She squeezed her bunched fingers as if milking them. The most touch since she’d last seen him was this tumble of medium-cold on her palms. She took a shower before bed, and the shower curtain reached for her. She kicked off the slimy plastic, but it breathed its way back, as if its natural position was tucked around her legs. She lay in bed gripping her upper arms, taking hold of herself. Her husband lay not far from her, talking on the phone to his brother.
As she lay full length on top of her lover, her chin pressed into his neck, she suggested that there was a graph of how touched she’d been in her life, in one period too much, the next few years too little, a kind of bulging, sinuous line graph. It seemed like the kind of record that might be handed to her family on her death, she said, the way her children might one day search archived weather reports to find out the temperature the day they were born, or the way the Social Security Administration at gaps of years mails their calculations on how much money a person has made over the span of their wage-earning career. Currently the graph showed steep peaks and sharp declines, the kind of waves that sink small craft. She meant this as an indicator of her despair, that she found this situation unbearable. The device sighed as the fingers drew near, and sang high and low as it followed the hand’s magnetic field.
A pessimist, she said, could make a grave of how touched she’d been. The water rushed over her hands. The shower curtain grabbed at her. A person, she said, could make a graph of how touched she’d been, sometimes too much, other times not at all, a sinuous line. Her current position on the graph was so perilous it could have sunk small craft. “Listen to me,” she said, only to find herself gripping her upper arms. Sinners high and low as it follows the hand’s magnetic fight.
Though she had the impression they hardly conversed, he played back her remarks about the theremin. He had cut out the part about the starvation of her ancestors, the stark contrast with the dubious surfeits of today. “If it stays out on the table, then no one touches it at all,” she heard herself say, and then “no one touches” and “you’d do better.” “If it stays out, it stays out,” spoke her voice. He had cut out the parting about the starvation of her andantes. Or you could say he’d cut out the part-timer about the starvation of her angers.
Touching her armaments. Touching her armchairs. The terrible ache in the bottoms of her feet. Her grandmother had seen skeletal men descend on an empty garden and dig with their bare hands. Touching her armistices. The troubling acoustic in the boughs of her footfalls. “If it stays out,” she said, “you’d do better to find out some more about plexiglas.” The extent to which these melancholics were like converters, in the bottoms of her feet. Single voluptuous renaissance of forgers.
Birds flew up out of a puddle and landed on a window ledge. Birdcages. Birthrights. Bitches. A coal freighter nosed its way through a narrow channel. It would be good to take this in a completely different dirge. Different traitors. Naive charades. Just a vista of birthplaces in a parliament. Her grandmother had seen skeletal men descend on the garden and dig with their bare hands. A fret in a chaplain. She also questioned the endowment of her lifestyle, the grasshopper shred almost novel, shivering at a photocopier. Also has to include that he’d set her graphics to musical.
She learned only after the fact that he’d won an award from the local music scene for a cantata he’d written using her graph of how touched she’d been at certain points in her life, sometimes too much, other times hardly at all, a canvas he’d composed using her grassland, these days steep peaks and sharp declines, the kind of waves that sink small craft. Or you could render it as steep pea-soupers and shear dedications, the kinsman of waysides that sire small craniums. She found his sample of it extremely irritating. They lay down head to head and listened to it in its entirety, the slow swellings, the mashed claustrophobia, the gentle rocking, and the current moment rendered as the kind of waves that sink small craft. Most mysteriously, the piece descended into tranquility. Most mysteriously, the pier or the pigeon descended. The slow swimmers, the mashed claustrophobia, the geography rocking. The slow swishes, rocking the outcomes. She repeated what she’d said about plexiglas—a long blue hum created by tiny oscillations.
She put her hand on his cheek to express her gratefulness, that he’d found a way to demonstrate her survival.
The last part, she said, hadn’t been on the graph. It also included many nouns that were more common as verbs, she said, such as rise, abandon. A long blue hum created by tiny oscillations. To look at it in retrospect, garnets of years majesties their calm. The devotion signs as the fingertips draw near. Or even, the diagram signposts as the firebombs draw near. She put her hand on his cheek to express her gratefulness, that he’d found a way to demonstrate her suspension.
A bonus under a forgery, the sailor of it all belying. A freighter. A pigeon. Included many novelties that were more common as verities, such as rise, abandon. Removed both chairs. Suspending the sleeper. Bands of starving men descended on the empty garden, these renegades of handfuls from her flight. But it was quiet and calm. Quintet and camber.
More bonfires under a foretaste, the saga of it all belying. A friction. A pike. She put her hand on his cheek to express her gratefulness. The silt of the aftermath altogether more comprehensible.
Angela Woodwardis the author of two story collections, The Human Mind (Ravenna Press, 2007) and Origins and Other Stories (Dzanc Books, 2016), and two novels, End of the Fire Cult (Ravenna Press, 2010) and Natural Wonders (Fiction Collective 2, 2016). Natural Wonders won the 2015 FC2 Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize.