An excerpt from
Sound Effect Infinity
By the time the boy came through the rear fire exit, Stein’s Tavern had been worked to its typical peak ruckus. Men and women pounded through cans of Miller, Pabst, and Busch like they were scratching at places they hoped would never leave. A few, as always, were trying to impress someone or themselves, doing bourbon shots, then gulping down a full can of brew. You had always been able to order boilermakers there, no matter the era. Even now as I write ten years later, they still have their heavy-duty shot glasses for drunken billy goats to slam on the table without breaking. It was still a fairly new extravagance back on that night. Whiskey of most kinds hadn’t been available in the Middle Lands ever since the early days of the Drift Away, when things got scarce. The hard stuff had only started showing up again a few months before I’d arrived. But even then, supply was spotty at best. They had to wait for the night truck cruising through from St. Louis on its way to Kansas City and the Denver border.
The boy had to duck under sliding cue sticks and dodge determined players and money holders. People never danced much at Stein’s. But the juke had always offered up rockabilly, country, and acid surf exclusively. The Elvis version of “That’s All Right” pulsated through the room. They’d recently beefed up their Elvis collection for obvious reasons. It had been nearly a century since that stuff had gone pop rage. Right then, it was monstrous again because certain denizens of the Middle Lands had finally gone more than their usual crazy. Weirdos from all over were flocking to the area in order to catch a glimpse of him. It was thought there might be something about his voice they needed to hear—something significant in the grain of his sound. People kept asking each other and the media, “What’s he going to say?” Some of us kept asking, “Who is he, really?” That’s why I was back in town anyway, more or less.
Maybe the kid had a psychic sneaking gift. He’d made it over without me noticing and had been standing silently in my blind spot for a while. I was aware of a presence, but not aware at the same time. Turning my head a quarter angle or so, I spoke out of the side of my mouth while staring at the floor in front of me. “You made it after all. Beginning to wonder.”
He was stuck to his position on the floor. A bit louder, I said, “Step around so I don’t gotta talk out the side of my face.”
He moved past my shoulder. He was Amish. I’d met up with older guys the day before to set up our secret meeting. The kid had been present as well. They said he’d come find me.
“Do you know where we’re going?”
He nodded carefully. The drunken noise and music were obviously making him uncomfortable. Elvis was just finishing up. “Da di di di…”
I always liked Arthur Crudup’s original lyrics more. “Well, you sneak off in my kitchen, eat up all my bread, soon’s my back is turned you diddlin’ in my bed. But that’s all right, that’s all right, that’s all right now, mama. Any way you do.”
There really isn’t a single creative line in Presley’s version. I’d put that in my article on him along with everything else somewhat critical I could come up with so many years before that night there at Stein’s. My article is partly why it felt like they’d eventually needed to run me out of town. Who knows? Citizens like me in this part of the country have always been too ambiguous from kindergarten age on. People wait to point the finger and pound their social gavels. I used to feel like I was a mutt the world had taken in. Now I realize I was actually more like a prisoner at the mercy of everyone’s judgement. Which is how I got better and better at pushing until people made it clear the next step would be a mistake.
I rose from the table holding a Busch can with my fingers, polished off the warm dregs, then followed the boy back past the pool tables and out the back door. A slight chill hovered in the alley after a rain that had come down hard while I was waiting in Stein’s. Wearing jeans and a brown T-shirt, I rubbed my arms. “Need to get a sweatshirt from my car.”
The boy pulled his jacket across his chest, ignoring me, then headed up the alley toward the street. We snuck along the wall of the building, moving in and out of shadows, avoiding any light shimmering against wet trashcans and the glistening, grease-stained alley pavement.
I sensed human noise ahead, low murmuring, whispered commands. From behind a double dumpster emerged three young men in their early twenties. They wore the same basic dress as the boy. Two had thin, curly black beards, no mustaches. The other, a bit younger perhaps, was clean faced. Something seemed immediately different about him. It was partly in the way he propelled himself, as if he was wading through knee-high water. The upper body, especially around the shoulders, remained calm and still. He moved from the waist down, striding through shadows. His blue eyes flashed momentarily in the swishing alley light, showing, somehow, that he seemed to understand all the thoughts and feelings around us at once. Certainly, he made me feel this secret meeting was under control and that there was zippo to worry about. The two other brothers stole looks at the backpack on my shoulders, then walked ahead without a word.
The boy led me fifteen yards behind the others. No one said a thing. Amidst the occasional trickle splash of moving water and sparse cricket music, I noted the muted tinkle of the paper-wrapped bottles in my bag and the occasional cloth-ripping sound of pickups driving through wet streets. Every once in a while, a bird call rippled through the darkness. There was a time when I knew many of the names of night and field noisemakers. I learned some of that in school and some from my father. We’d sit on the hood of his truck and share a cherry soda listening to the night. He’d grown up with both of his parents working on farms in the area. He didn’t know many kids’ stories. because his parents didn’t have much time for that back then. So, he taught me names of weeds and names of the insects making the sounds we were hearing. I also learned what to call many of the high farm grasses as well, although later, in college, I realized that the names for wild plants and insects morph and shift from decade to decade. It had been a long time since I’d contemplated my past—a long time after a lot of effort to move beyond it.
We kept to the shadows as much as possible. Fayette was a small town, especially in those days. Most of the homes were already dark, save the occasional flickering violet glow of a living room screeno. Structures were simple: rectangular, two large windows in front, a door between. Yards flowed into each other, strewn with the shapes and scent of wet, wind-blown rusting metal objects like old steel-framed lawn chairs, dented buckets, tractor parts, pickup canopies, tarp-covered fishing boats, the odd motorcycle, large plastic toys, old bicycles grouped near the side of a shed or a house. Some of the lots had also become resting grounds for automobile skeletons, ancient tractors, and other machines. Piles of lumber and brush sprouted in random spots, along with stacks of rotting fence post and heaps of gravel and backfill. There had never been sidewalks.
We made our way along the shoulder of the road near a culvert still brimming with slow-moving rainwater, smelling like wet hair and stained skin. The water gurgled and clicked softly next to us, attempting to find a rhythm but flowing, too, with the singular purpose water has to catch, remember, and repeat any kind of useful pulse of gravity it can find.
After another quarter mile, we came to a sharp bend in the road and turned off into a sizable field occupied by hunched silhouettes of large bales of hay. Proceeding slowly in single file, a chip of bright moon moved out of smoky clouds, partially illuminating the land before us. The walk was beginning to warm me.
At the top of a long ridge, the lights of Fayette sparked and fluttered in the distance. A truck weaved along the state road below, heading south toward Route 40 and I-70 leading back to Columbia. We trailed over the crest and continued down the other side. I wanted to ask where we were going. There was an obvious need to not be seen, but I hadn’t planned on tromping through sopping fields all night long. I could feel more rain to come in the air.
We picked up speed once we crossed a small creek. The moon had shifted to a smudgy sliver of orange, partially obscured by clouds. It seemed like we’d more or less gone around the edge of town and were heading north in the direction of the Hungry Mother Reserve. I had once worked out that way on a summer farm job as a teen. I loved the vast scale of pasture and crop land back then, and how beautifully lost and small it made me feel. There was no question life out there had changed a lot over the years since I’d left. It felt somehow that night like I was walking into the newest version of nowhere.
Things had broken down. It always felt like America only half-noticed. Certainly, those of us in the media knew better than to harp too much on the breakdown. Somewhere in the course of things had been what we began to call The Drift Away. Some people simply called it the Drift Away. There was no secession or war, really. Not even an understanding that had been discussed in the media or codified with a memorandum of understanding between those in charge of regions. One of the methods of the Middle Lands was to eliminate much of what was once considered official. There had simply been too much turmoil and too much inability to define anything useful between the major groups. Incompetence on all sides. The Middle Lands became a new kind of territory—still America but certainly not the United States thereof.
Rules flattened. Expectations shifted. Laws seemed to have become more fluid, difficult to predict, and weirdly random. Geography itself had lost definition. It was the opposite of a revolution in many ways, even though it had been building since the days of the so-called Final Recession. They called it the final straw here, but we’d sensed where things were going way back in my teen years. Collective memory had long ago dissipated because of computer storage and data. But that kind of predictability wasn’t even available anymore on the coastal zones. Somehow not knowing had become a version of acceptable simplicity. There was a strange cognitive process that seemed to come and go with all sorts of people. They seemed to want to know little about the past and cared less about the future. A vague way of thinking came into vogue that seemed to emphasize the near present. It was difficult to track, though, because people seemed to fluctuate in and out of it. You sensed an intelligence fog around them. There was the present, almost like a version of mindfulness, but it was only attached to a next step or two like going to the store, having dinner, that first cup of coffee in the morning, screen watching, some basic way to catch a buzz and nudge dopamine levels up a few notches. The joke we came up with way out in Philly is that a lot of people in the Middle Lands probably lost interest in the middle of sex because they couldn’t remember they were hoping to have an orgasm.
At the top of another rise, we stopped near a pile of hay the size of an auto-bus. I knew the look of this set up. Someone had clipped the baling wire no more than a few hours ago. One of the brothers searched the pile carefully.
“Not here,” he said.
“Look again,” said the non-bearded one as he pushed his hat up to expose a pale boyish forehead in the moonlight. He moved in closer to help.
“Ah!” called the first triumphantly. Pulling a large, dark object from the pile, he brushed it off a bit, then smacked it against the backside of his thigh a few times.
They crowded in close, exchanging shy, somewhat embarrassed glances with me. I bent and turned slightly to remove my pack. Paper-wrapped bottles knocked lightly against each other. I’d purchased the backpack at Walmart earlier in the day after buying their whiskey. The beardless brother handed me the dark object, an Amish hat they’d made for me. I let him take the backpack in return. The boy had disappeared.
As the bag was being unzipped, I tried on my hat.
“Perfect!” I said, probably louder than was needed. “For years, I’ve heard about these. Even before I left. Best feeling hats ever.” They removed bottles of Wild Turkey from their respective brown paper bags. “You guys are brilliant. Thank you so much!”
The hat makers busied themselves opening their bottles. Golden vanilla, 101 proof knockout, a hint of citrus mixed with a concealed, enigmatic secret spice. Rare enough those days out in the Middle Lands. It generally meant a bit of extra cash and a request for the clerk to look carefully in the back of the store. Once uncorked, all three of them seemed to hesitate at the idea of taking a drink.
“Shit,” I said, “I’ll take a pull. Show you how it’s done.”
The one closest to me handed over his bottle gratefully. I guzzled two or three bursts out of the bottle. Acid heat ignited in my chest.
“Go slow,” I offered. “Gotta get the hang. They don’t call it the hurtin’ bird for zip.”
I trudged back, hopefully the way I came, through wet grass and muddy fields. More buzzed than usual, even for me, I felt my thoughts expanding slightly and nostalgia taking over. Being alone out there felt like old times. I imagine I walked for close to half a mile with few thoughts in my head. That changed, though.
At first, it was like the whisper that wakes people out of dreams, only it was coming to me through moist night air, kind of rolling in slow-motion, wrapped inside a pulse of wind. It grew slightly in volume, swirling around me as I came to a stop in the partial darkness. Rotating my head from side to side, I tried to determine the direction the sound was coming from.
After what may have been seconds or minutes, the noise seemed to have slipped away. My mouth gapes open when I concentrate. Vague dreamlike feelings––not really mine––floated around my mind. Wind hissed through the trees and grasses. I realized that the sound of night insects had disappeared. It had been the soundtrack of my childhood, living, noisemaking perpetual, incessant chords in the dark. Even in Philadelphia, where I’ve lived for decades, insect sound permeates everything in the summer once the sun goes down, especially in August.
I considered having a smoke. The whisper picked up again, but became more distinct. Electric guitar music. I felt as if I were standing in the middle of a circle of musicians who needed to be careful with something, playing some kind of game or trick.
Occasionally, a note would bend upwards in a quick whine. A whammy bar got squeezed, making the sound wobble. Scrabbling, dissonant guitar scales followed a set of power chords ending in a long, echoing pulse of something that seemed like more than molecules of air. No melody. No style. The whole moment, as inharmonious and nonsensical as it was, seemed slinky, almost as if the sound was sliding like a warm lizard through the air, not plucked or even amplified, sneaking into my ears and through my skin simultaneously.
“Where is that coming from?” I asked the clouds and tree shadows. Then I remembered some of the research I’d done on the flight into St. Louis. What had been a number of out of the way farms when I’d lived in Columbia and worked out in the region was now owned by a single individual named Lucas Fancher.
Electrified sound whirled through the atmosphere on little puffs of air. Random half-thoughts came unbidden––punch lines to jokes, obsessive impulses, vague concepts, unfamiliar emotions. I felt uncomfortable, couldn’t understand. Following the noise as best I could, I trudged up a gentle rise, weeds waist-high, my feet becoming wetter than they already were. But then, crossing a gully into a stand of trees, the sound died with a plaintive, mumbled, electric “Thank you” — a finger sliding up a string, punctuating the “you” with a single, deadened note on the next string down.
Definitely time for a smoke, and maybe a little investigative research.
I took my time with the cigarette, waiting for the music to pick up again. My whiskey buzz seemed to have turned mostly to liquid and was sitting in my bladder ready to be let loose. I waited a bit more, inhaling smoke, exhaling.
Just at the edge of hearing, I felt a resonant, percussive sound trying to grab at something. I also sensed a kind of drone chord, then choral-like voices threading through me. I kept walking. Eventually, I found myself at the top of a hill, surprised at a lone, dull light in the valley below.
“Campfire?” I asked no one.
There had been something in my research about Fancher’s daughter on screenos everywhere, a few years back. She’d left this area and gone on the road as a musician. Dropped her dad’s name and toured with a band as McKenna Joombs. She had several hits in the new style, which wasn’t really a new style at all, melding country and old jazz with beater and brown stomp.
A series of sharp, echoing, cracks broke the silence. It could have been some idiot illegally night hunting wild boar or nightcrow. The light below flickered, then rose and brightened, shifting color, white and gold spitting out of a simple orange flame.
When you land in St. Louis, you are required to allow them to remove your telecommunications chip. You also have to turn in your personal handheld screeno system. They store it all in little Faraday Cage chambers. But like everything in the Middle Lands, they aren’t good at controlling anything they claim is necessary to control. No one is allowed out of Lindbergh International without going to their scheduled T-chip removal session. And I did indeed turn in my personal device, but not my work unit. The worst that could happen was confiscation, maybe a monitoring chip requirement for a few months. Possibly, also, a fine. Certainly, I needed to be careful about using it for voice work, but it was top end with a lot more utility than basic personal glass.
Tapping the slab twice lit up the main screen. I saw that the power level was below twenty percent, so I was going to have to leave it in my motel window for several days of charging. Choosing the night-vision option, I messed some with the telecasting functions by running my finger up the left side of the glass. After a few swipes, the screen sparkled slightly. I pointed it toward the lights below and let autofocus pull the image in, then brighten the surrounding space.
I could see a close-up of what maybe was a fire. Even with telecasting vision, it wasn’t clear what the source of light might be. I could also see that several people were carrying a limp body away from the source of light. It was hard to know for sure, but it seemed like the guys I just traded booze with were doing the carrying. I adjusted the screeno a bit more to get a closer view of the body or person or whatever it was they were carrying.
I couldn’t help myself. “Is that…?”
It was impossible to be certain, but the mouth and jaw and somehow the neck…
Elvis Presley? Not really? The kid was there, too, deeper inside the shadows. They were all moving away from the light source. Was it Presley, really, or might it be the brother without a beard. Hard to tell. It could have been a fake. It also seemed for a moment there as they all passed out of the light that it was someone else altogether, vaguely resembling Rod Stewart or the guitarist Jeff Beck.
I tipped my new hat back from my forehead, fiddling with the screeno in silence. Gradually, the spatter sound of rain began to move toward me. Drops fell harder. The light below began to fade. I figured it was still a twenty-minute hike back to Stein’s. My hat was going to get its first weather test.