|Matthew Derby: HOME RECORDINGS*
Though it was not my job, I would sometimes go around a certain house fixing up some of the minor imperfections—a dangling shade, perhaps, or an unhinged door. Who could not fix something that was just laying there, broken to the world? How could you just leave something out like that, hanging like some fibrous, dicked appendage?
I worked part time, which meant that for the other part of my time I rifled through the houses of people who were currently living in them. My wife’s, for instance, a place I was very familiar with. She brought a child and a waffle iron into our relationship—I brought nothing but a lifetime of pouting and relentless self indulgence. Nevertheless, I was given a set of keys to her place, and permission to use the bed and washroom, but not a towel or soap. “For a person that has never heard of self reliance—” she’d say, face brought into sharp relief by some base cosmetic arrangement. Consequently, I washed during the day, using a dingy, third-handed set of linens I kept in a plastic bag under the tub, long after she had loped off to whatever bricked, shuttered life she got paid to rub away.
She had lots of little things around—a smirking, pubescent cat clock, two tall reed baskets of seemingly foreign origin, a lone ski pole with the phrase “champ” written in squidgid, blocked magic-marker script—objects that stood for various times and places in her life, the relevance of which she kept from me with a sort of Eucharistic vigilance. They were all over the house—I could sense when one was coming up in a room—I would check it with the house machine and, sure enough, all kinds of sound would come rushing out of it.
I listened to her things for hours while she was at work, carefully running over each surface with the slim, troweled orifice of the microphone, scanning the frequencies for some meaningful tone. On hot, dry days swatches of fabric tended to surrender the clearest, most vivid signals. At times, the sound was clear enough to evoke a kind of sightfulness. A nettled tuft of floor-length bedroom hair one morning brought about a striking tableau of her child, Janet, the person we spoke most of, but cared least for in the world. She was just starting to walk. There were some sounds of her feebly traversing the corner of an apartment I had never seen or even heard of, but which had very nice things in it, much nicer than the things we had in our house. On another frequency I could hear the child handling some plastic figures and blocks, trying to paste together some sort of world out of these cheap, patronizing talismans. Her head shook like one of those big-headed baseball figurines with springs for necks. By the time I started wedging myself into her life, the girl could already put her own shoes on and say things like “we’re going faster.”
The ending of each day had the habit of getting right up in my face, with little or no advance warning. I locked down the house I was sounding, a massive, interbred structure buttressed by haughty, overnourished columns and balustrades, and hauled the tapes back to the Museum of Real Estate and Finance. The Foreman had a tentative, disagreeable face and body, as if it had been preempted at an early stage.
“What there—you?” he asked from behind the marquee. He was blind by choice, just like my father.
“A couple instructive loops. Some business about a fancy dress, a boating accident, Ibiza.”
“So far, so far.”
It was a job that did what I wanted it to. It stayed wherever I put it. Where I lived, though, was massive and untenable, an emotional dumping ground—a house whose thin meniscus trembled and brimmed with discontent. The relationship we kept taking stabs at didn’t slip through my hands so much as level itself, sloppily, against them. My wife and I were still passing back and forth a virus I had picked up years before. It became part of what we did together—the life we fostered in lieu of a child of our own.
I was rarely satisfied with what I had heard in our house, and so I continued on through the bedroom every morning, taking samples from anything that resonated. Each fragment of this woman’s memory left a hole where another one started. One by one they began to pull me along into the other side of her life, the part that happened before I had started greedily busting it up at every available opportunity. I’m not sure what I expected to find—probably some clear confirmation that the time in which she had known me was intense enough to invalidate her past experience. I did not know the people that had trespassed into her life before me, and was interested in what they had to say for themselves.
One morning, after a few cursory passes around the bedroom, I found exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. In one of her closets, wedged in behind a box of china, was a red plastic sandal. It resonated at a near perfect B flat, though the signal was tainted by frequent, intense arpeggiated bursts of vibrato. The sound was my wife, before she was my wife or even a person I had ever known, sitting in a baby pool with the kid and her father. I had met this man a few times in real life—he was the kind of thing you’d expect to see—underbaked, corn shaped, toothy. He made a lot of money in the city. There were other family members there, my wife’s sister and her husband, who sat in the background, sulking. I liked them, and felt sorry that they had to spend time with this fellow holding court in the tub. Everything he said was either from a commercial or soon to be one. My wife, this person she was, you could see she was trying to hold things together. She had the child in her lap, and poured water over its back with a small plastic cup.
I didn’t like what the sound was doing to my body—I went cold, and there was a spot in the center of me that glowed like a car lighter, but it didn’t stop me from listening. I held a finger over the teardrop-shaped mute button in case there was something I didn’t want to hear. There were lots of things that had the potential for me to never want to hear. In college, I had a coupon for a free night’s hotel stay, and so I took this girl up to the city to make a dirty movie. Only I wanted it to be a silent film. I told her she wasn’t allowed to make a sound—not even the rustle and bond of her skirt and top as she peeled them slowly from her body—a noise that I can only refer to as ’stez’. She would only do what I asked if I promised to destroy the tape, but wasn’t quick enough to see, afterwards, that the tape I busted up in the lobby had never been used, and that the guilty party was still nestled in the camera bag. I put a belt around her neck and worked at her pasty, splotched body from behind. The headboard kept banging into the wall so I had to stuff some pillows in the crevice between. She parried and lurched like the understudy for some lanky, newborn animal, skinny legs canted in the hideous lamp light. Watching that tape now, after about ten years, is a shameful and embarrassing procedure. Seeing myself swagger around, holding my breath, cock dipped and pitted, my hands in places that hands shouldn’t go, is like having your own worst time in your life and someone else’s all at once. But it hasn’t ever stopped me from watching.
The family sat in the pool for a long time. This father had a little squirt toy and started to use it on the child and my wife. The sister and her husband just sat. “Honey, she seems thirsty,” the sister said to my wife. The father turned and squirted the sister’s upper thigh. There was something sad and groping about the sound—a lostness, the collapsing wheeze of a flaccid and eminently forgettable overture. The sister looked at him. The father just looked on, grinning like the wide, unseemly grille of a truck. I had never heard of someone so completely oblivious to their surroundings.
But I promised myself, there in the bedroom, sound machine in my lap, that I would not malign the father. I would keep my feelings to myself, where nobody has any business with them anyway. I don’t like when people can tell what I’m feeling, and I don’t like it when they try. That is why I don’t say anything to anyone. My wife preferred it this way—she could get more done.
This business with the pool continued on for some time, with all of these characters who had barnstormed the peripheries of my life sitting around in the heat with pinched, dumbfounded expressions. I had had enough, and put everything back the way I’d found it.
The house I went to that day was loud, filled with the dull, inlaid memories of a hundred lives. The clients would be disappointed in the reels—none of these people were especially upstanding or even had anything of interest to contribute to a conversation. Light hit the walls and floor in strange, unanticipated waves of grief. The bedroom keened softly the whole time I was there. Ancient prints of bodies lolled and shifted in the adjoining hall. The tone of the place was marbly, clotted. This would drive the price down considerably, although the tub made an exquisite sound, white and palmated with tiny, cracked branching radiates. It was the centerpiece of the whole place, probably because no one chose to mark it with the indelible effluvium of their life.
The foreman asked me what I’d gotten.
“You know when people ask you to think of a bad thing and multiply it by ten?”
I handed him the envelope with the reels. He felt at it for a long, self absorbed moment, speculating on the relative value of the contents.
“This fucks us.”
I told him that the house would never be sold, that the whole place was caked over. He filed away the envelope in one of the big, diagnostic machines. I went out and had a cigarette. The day, with all its bitter, ridiculous interstices, had been, finally and irretrievably, killed.
The next morning, that thing that made me take out the microphone was back. My wife was up, again, preparing her face for work in the bathroom. The girl had wandered in during the night and was sleeping crosswise on the bed. I held my stomach, thinking about that man, that place she had made in the world that was now gone. Where was I, then, on that morning while they squatted in that cheap, overdesigned pool? Did I tick away those hours, useless and alone in South City? Could I have those gestures, that day, back again?
I got in my car and circled the neighborhood a few times, waiting for my wife to leave. Everything was curiously dead in the sharp, festooned streets. When I was sure the house was empty I went back and turned on the machine. There was a narrow crack in one of the floorboards, from which I extracted the mealy, yellowed flap of an envelope, glue and all. Something about the offhand way it had been discarded drew me to it. Under the slim trowel of the microphone’s horn it seemed to shimmy and buck. It took longer than usual to draw out a signal—what did come was brittle and insubstantial. I was hard pressed for detail and clarity. By interpolating the middle C with a B flat, though, I was able to conjure the sound of the father. He stood naked to his socks in a dim, brownish room, talking to a couple of people sitting on the couch. It came at me fiercely, out of the late morning. His body, barely distinguishable from the washed out, underlit background, was thin and frail, and the way he moved it suggested the palsied antics of a small boy. I couldn’t follow the thread of his talk—he said things like “the greatest fucking year I’d like to fuck.” Occasionally, the noise would list towards the couch, where the other couple were laid out, shamefully distended and half dressed. The father danced by the empty cavity of a fireplace, the bowed tine of his dick swaying, half erect.
I listened, cradling the lozenge-shaped deck like a tender football. Forgive me for saying that it was something that couldn’t not be heard. It flickered before me, monstrous and immense, the realization of some deep, long-choked fear. Here was the soft, purloined limb that had hostaged away my wife’s time and energy for seven years, braying at the entrance to her unwitting, futile cunt. Something inside me broke like a glass vial. I got it all over myself.
I sat there in the same fashion as, probably, my wife had when she was taking in this particular sound. And what about her life? Is this what they did back then, night after night, filibustering in each other’s spaced-up West Coast apartments?
Predictably enough, my wife showed up, having forgotten the kid’s day care bag. We regarded each other for some time, the silence of the room interrupted only by the inane, periodic bursts of the child’s father. She made a series of high pitched, desultory sounds, on the pretext of making language. I had nothing to apologize for, never having promised her anything by way of personal consideration. She took a step forward. I put the machine on the bed and grabbed my jacket. She assumed, I think, that we would have something to say, but I pushed past her in the narrow hall and took the stairs all the way down.
Outside, it was bright, unforgivably so. I could hardly see to my car. And what then? Should I say that I got in and drove off, smoking one cigarette after another, lining them up end on end until I was all of the way out of that life? Because what happened was that I stayed there, with those people, for another three and a half dreadful, thoroughly forgettable years in the way that we best know how to make ourselves feel welcome wherever we’d least like to be.
Matthew Derby is the author of Super Flat Times: Stories. His writing has appeared in Conjunctions, McSweeney's, The Believer and Fence.
*'Home Recordings' appeared previously in 3rd bed issue #2.