The Silence of Rain, The Music of Acceleration

  • Monday Morning

It’s 7:10 am and Dara’s frown is an attempt to deflect the sudden gyroscope of sunlight whirling into her eyes. That damn Mercedes ahead of her, bumper’s been massaged to a mocking brilliance, driver’s probably male, middle-aged, show-offy in a pitiable attempt to exemplify L.A. chic, a crass materialist. Her frown becomes a blink. As her eyes open the gyroscope right-angles crazily away and she sees the driver: uh-huh, middle-aged white guy talking with pompous animation on a cell phone. Jesus. And the vaguely cobwebby odor of the air-conditioner nudges her toward irritation, too. Wouldn’t need an air-conditioner in November if she’d stayed in the Midwest after she graduated from the University of Chicago. And she doesn’t have the comforting distraction of listening to music on the radio, she rarely listens to anything other than talk shows – over the years she’s acquired tone-deafness, improbable as that may sound. So still frowning and listening with suspicion as her husband Alan chatters above the feverish patter of the morning DJ. Suspicious because it’s completely out of character for him so early in the morning, this giddy helium of chatter. Something about Twell Systems, where he works, finally hiring an African-American as VP of Marketing to whip the department into shape, John P. somebody, the first black executive at the company.

“Well, that’s good,” she says vaguely. Barely remembers to acknowledge him in the rearview. Oddly, but somehow in keeping with the less … satisfactory … aspects of his personality, Alan sprawls in the back sometimes, offering no explanation for his choice in seating.

“It’s better than just good, Dara.” Her distracted remark has polluted the rarefied atmosphere his voice had risen to. “It’s means maybe, finally, they’ll start looking at me instead of the color of my skin. Maybe I can finally get somewhere.”

“That’s what I meant,” she protests, but it’s weak, the robust conviction that should flush through her tone has been drained, and she doesn’t have the strength to try to hide it. He’s been trying to “get somewhere” for as long as she can remember. After five years of marriage – she’s thirty-three, he’s forty – she can’t dredge up the enthusiasm anymore. So this must be the “black woman’s dilemma” that several of her friends, with bitterly amused humor, refer to when they gather together for cocktails once a week at Mooney’s, a jazz club on the Santa Monica pier. In recent months, she’s started to understand what they mean, because it’s becoming harder and harder for her to display genuine enthusiasm for Alan’s latest passion with each of his failures. Ironically, though, it’s the “black woman” who ends up the villain, typifies the worst that a black woman is reputed to typify: peppery with condemnation, hard as nails, loud and shrill and almost comically hysterical, foot firmly and permanently lodged in some poor black guy’s aggrieved ass. Not “failure” then, that’s not the word. Because of course Alan’s much too sophisticated to buy into the concept of failure and in fact always talks about Edison – or is it Einstein? – doggedly conducting hundreds of unsuccessful experiments before he comes up with a light bulb – or is it a telephone? – that works. Wait, just remembered, it’s neither Einstein or Edison, they’re just examples because she can’t remember the name of the black inventor Alan actually mentioned. Inventor, composer, whatever. Anyway, she knows Alan’s right in not calling his failures “failures.” What word, then?

They argue about something a week ago – sex at first, that is, no sex, then a whole assortment of buried resentments are heatedly exhumed – and Alan responds to something she says with “See, that’s why the white man gets ahead – because the white woman supports him no matter what.” Of course she tells him what a juvenile, no, what a racist comment that is. But she’s dazed because it’s the first time any argument of theirs is littered with the sort of broad racial pronouncements that reduce everything to second-hand political rhetoric. It’s the first time their own misunderstanding becomes nothing more than a parody of some bitter, legendary division between “the black man” and “the black woman.” And she weeps in the middle of the exchange as she realizes they’ve both reduced themselves to abstractions.

Now she glances in the rearview. Just as she expects, he’s offended, the petals of his feelings as easily ruffled and scattered as pollen is scattered from a dried dandelion by the merest breath. He falls silent. Good.

Good, not that he’s hurt, but that he’s silent. Because why change the routine at this point? Usually during their commute – well, not “their” commute, it’s his actually, she drives him to work because a few weeks ago their other car’s parked in front of the house and it’s sideswiped by a drunk driver naked from the waist down, and her job at St. Luke’s as a respiratory therapist has been “downsized,” she has the time on her hands for now … so, usually he’s struggling to emerge from his cocoon of grumpy silence, a silence he later justifies with the assertion that, after all, he’s a night person – “night” being a euphemism for “creative” – stays up until one or two in the morning, has to, can’t sleep, or probably could sleep if he put his mind to it, but loves working on his “productions” after midnight. That’s what he calls the songs he writes in the digital sixteen-track midi studio he set up in the spare bedroom, “productions.” Listen to that, the way she still thinks of it: digital sixteen-track midi studio. Never did know what the hell that meant, despite his impassioned explanations. Thinking in his language, a vocabulary foreign to her before their marriage five years ago, always fills her mind with questions rather than answers. But in recent weeks, her own vocabulary’s been returning, the long-lost words a cool seductive tingle on the surface of her lips, the very air itself a veil trembling in surprise as the words pierce through, words that invariably startle Alan. Words that startle Dara herself.

Traffic pulses along, then collapses: flatline, patient’s not going anywhere. No movement along the shimmering artery of the Ventura Freeway. Miles of idling engines hum ominously, like the continuous whine on a hospital cardiac monitor. She hates the sound of the freeway, whether the traffic has come to a halt, as now, or whether everything’s hurtling forward and every car that passes leaves in its wake that ambient, descending whine that seems like a demonstration of some axiom from a textbook on physics.

Music for the tone deaf.

Glances again at the rearview. He’s sitting there, staring into space, his fingers absently pecking the air before him as though typing: playing the piano. Wait, sorry, almost forgot, they just call it “keyboards” now. Creativity. She thinks she understands it. The withdrawal, shutting everything out and running to a place deep inside to fling open a door in some dim corridor and find something completely unexpected. But in truth she doesn’t like the unexpected, doesn’t like surprises, things that can’t be controlled, because it all reminds her of her mother, who was “creative” and withdrew as well, but unstoppably, nightmarishly. Withdrew at unexpected, unpredictable times – for hours, sometimes days – into awful heights of psychosis, like a balloon rising higher and higher into the sky and finally disappearing. Mama with her peculiar dignified hysteria. Even as her identity shattered into a million asymmetrical pieces, she was desperately conscious of the importance of being a well-educated black woman, a community spokesperson serving on a half-dozen neighborhood “political action” committees, as though that consciousness was her brittle lifeline back to the ever-receding shores of reality. Mama withdrawing gracefully into her own dissonant sky, into the roiling clouds of her own thoughts, into the elegant tempest of her mind, finally to be completely swept away, swept away.

“It’s been six months, Dara,” Alan says suddenly. His fingers continue stabbing the air abstractedly, though less emphatically. “I don’t know many men, black or white, red, brown or yellow, who would go along with a situation like this. And I hate to say it, but no Caucasian woman would ever expect her man – ”

Knows where he’s going and cuts him off. “Why lately are all the points you try to make tied to color? Suddenly everything with you is a color issue now … ” Tries to calibrate the anger in her voice downward and for one absurd moment thinks she almost feels gratitude, because yes, isn’t it true that no man would go along with the fact that there’s a stalactite of numbness dripping slowly down from the pleasure center they say is centered mysteriously in some crevice of her brain, pooling icily in her hips, freezing in her pelvis, paralyzing her loins, crystallizing the deep core of her sex?

“Why is color an issue? This is America – when is color not an issue? But I tell you what, Dara – keep it up. I’ve been trying to tell you, I’m being pushed into a corner and I don’t like being here.”

“Then don’t be there.” Intends to snap it out but just sounds weary.

“Don’t worry. I should have said I didn’t like being there. It’s not important anymore. It’s too goddamned late now. I just bring it up to let you know … “ His voices trails off into thoughtful silence.

“What are you talking about? Just say what you’re saying.” Wants to say more but can’t, this weariness wells up from somewhere organically deep and saturates the very marrow of her thoughts.

Traffic’s suddenly moving, she’s driving, then a massive shiver of disorientation pulses through her brain because, well, maybe she never stopped, maybe she’s been driving all along … ? She passes the white Mercedes in the lane to her left, and her disorientation is injected with a potent rush of deja vu – there’s that guy, still on the phone, and when he makes a sudden jabbing incision with his car, knifing it into her lane, the gyroscope of metallic light rolls off his fender and streaks across her eyes. She’s masked in blindness again, but this time tells herself it’s ok, it’s ok – just drive faster. Faster.

  • Tuesday Morning

A smoldering couch strewn with several pair of Nike sneakers over on the right shoulder of the freeway briefly becomes a wan flame for the flitting moth of her attention. It’s always something. Last week at around this very same spot two emaciated goats were leashed to the dividing guard rail ….

“How in the world did a fucking couch – that was obviously on fire at some point – get on the freeway?” His voice is threaded with a genuine, almost childlike, wonder, so that his swearing seems almost innocent. First remark he’s made since they left the house this morning.

Not interested, she shrugs. “This is L.A.” Been driving for twenty-five minutes, another five and she’ll exit on the Lake Street off-ramp in Pasadena and drop Alan off at Twell Systems. She’s paying more attention to the sky than to anything else. Clouds that suggest a massive dark frown hover angrily over the freeway, and then a thin sneeze of raindrops appears on the windshield.

“Damn,” she mutters sadly.

Alan’s in the front seat today. He’s staring out the passenger window, face pressed close to the glass. “It’s raining. Just what you hate. That’s too bad. After it rains, sky looks like a cathedral.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t care about any of that.”

“I know. I guess I wouldn’t either.” He speaks with a genuine sympathy that’s been absent from his tone for quite some time. Or no, not sympathy, it’s more as though he feels what she feels and is connected to her sadness. And in that way, because it’s shared, her sadness is lessened.

Click on the windshield wipers. “When it rains, I’m six years old and back on that shitty bus stop bench ….”

And she is, she’s six and back on that bus stop bench again, no, it’s an hour before the bus stop, six and playing with Barbie on the living room floor while her sister Leandra sits on Mama’s lap learning Three Blind Mice on the piano because Mama plays all kinds of music on the piano all day long and sometimes even in the middle of the night, or she plays the flute or the cello or the clarinet, Lee-lee’s mad because she likes to dance but Mama’s making her sit and learn … right now Mama’s voice is as soft as a quilt blanketing the room and when she turns to look down at Dara calm pastures spill from Mama’s green eyes. Then … then … then Daddy’s home but he doesn’t say Peg did you take your medication today doors bark like loud dogs because he’s slamming them in every room and snatching clothes from closets, Mama’s screaming now but not the devil-woman’s scream, just screaming and grabbing him by the wrist so that his watch flies off, he’s pulling away and diamonds melt from his eyes can’t take this anymore no more can’t live like this Peggy don’t know who you are sorry sorry Lee-lee Dara Daddy loves you ‘bye babies good-bye and time to eat at the dining room table but dinner’s late, the hands on the grandfather clock in the hall point straight up to the 12 and it’s dark out, Mama puts Dara and Lee-lee’s plates down so hard three peas roll off the table and into Dara’s lap and bounce to the floor, now Mama’s eyes are loud and pink with ugliness and her growling voice is the devil-woman’s voice get up both of you I know who you are do you think I’m a fool Lee-lee’s milk bursting out of the glass is a white octopus when it hits the floor because Mama snatches Lee-lee’s arm while she’s drinking, grabs Dara’s arm too we’ve got to get out of here, that man isn’t your father he’s Satan and when he was here he coughed and you breathed the cough in and Satan rushed into your lungs, the racist FBI is in here too hiding in the walls with their little scopes made of human flesh and their machine eyes trying to destroy all decent black people so that only the bad ones are left, that way they can have an excuse to send us all to extermination camps on the moon, it’s raining sideways outside, the darkness the rain the buildings slant sideways into Dara’s face because Mama’s running and pulling them both while she runs then Mama falls down gets up her hair covers her face wet then runs more down the street looking over her shoulder with no shoes on, pulling Dara hard by the wrist, pulling Lee-lee. Running down the middle of dark street but can’t keep up with Mama, a car almost hits them then a black dog with big teeth jumps out at them, still running and Dara’s own shoe flies off and hits a garbage can running a long time then they are sitting on a bench in the hard rain waiting for the bus to come, Mama’s going to take them to church on the bus but the bus never comes, the rain feels like cold nails and it’s late and Dara’s so sleepy all she can do is cry, hiccup-cry, can’t talk, shut up, that’s Satan crying out inside of you, at the church they’ll pour holy water on your heads and your faces will burn like fire when the waters burn the devil out just like this hammering rain and then the police shine their hot light red in her eyes and later Lee-lee’s in bed at the hospital because the cold rain slanted inside her and then Dara’s at Lee-lee’s funeral wanting to get in the box with her, get in the ground, not afraid to do that, not afraid ….

She swerves over from the fast lane, slashing across traffic, lurches over onto the right shoulder, the car rolling to an eventual stop as though of its own stunned volition. She sees an empty Kraft’s mayonnaise bottle, then hears it shatter beneath the right front tire. Sits there, staring straight ahead, gripping the wheel so tightly that the knuckle of her right finger cracks audibly, like a dry twig snapping.

What brings her back is not the sound of drivers blowing furious horns at her for her recklessness, not the jingle of the rain like the stutter of a nation of tambourines, but the peaceful, steady sound of Alan’s snoring.

  • Wednesday Morning

Left the house in her sheer silk sky-blue PJs this morning, her mood determining her attire, or rather, her lack of attire. That’s it, because of the rain, because it’s still raining, she feels exposed to the past, naked. Yes, all she needs now are hair rollers and a cigarette to add a harder edge to this picture of pathetic vulnerability and provide a certain ironic dowdiness. She flicks her eyes up to the rearview.

“When we met … remember? You thought you wanted to be a teacher then, you wanted to teach, you were an instructor at Pasadena Community College … it seems like you’ve wanted to be so many things. You were teaching a class called – what was it? Something like black angst and the urban milieu. Jesus, I still remember one of the chapters in the textbook was on graffiti as a ‘distinctly urban art form’ … by that time I already had my degree, but I was lonely, I didn’t know what to do with myself at night, so I thought I could at least do something constructive, keep my mind busy … when I came in your class the first day I was early. You were sitting at your desk going through papers. I didn’t think anything about you at that point, except that you were young to have a receding hairline and you were sort of a careless dresser. Then at about five minutes before the class began, this girl with braids carrying I think a violin case comes in. Remember? Her name was Sharletta Johnson. She says ‘Is this African-American Lit 308?’ and then falls backwards, collapses on the floor … convulsing and … and I could hear her teeth clattering together … the heels of her shoes clattering up and down on the floor. You ran over to her and put her head in your lap, you took her head in your hands so gently, so she wouldn’t hurt herself. And you did something, was it you ripped your shirt, wrapped cloth around your finger and put it in her mouth so she wouldn’t bite her tongue off? That was when I fell in love with you. I think I must have thought, if you could save her, you could save me. Because all my life I felt like I was falling, falling backwards, paralyzed … after we starting seeing each other, I thought, this is one black man who has his act together. You know how I talk to Leandra in my dreams. Well, I told her how intelligent you were, how articulate and talented you were, like Mama. But you know what? Lee-lee told me you couldn’t save me, she told me that but I didn’t listen, because I was in love. And the way it turned out, you were busy trying to save yourself. I mean, ‘discover’ yourself, trying to discover what you were supposed to do. First it was teaching, then it was writing screenplays, then it was something to do with publishing a literary magazine … then you did the freelance photography thing … something else after that … and now, the music studio and writing all these songs, most of them I can’t even follow. And the thing about it is, all this doesn’t really seem to make you happy, it seems like such a grim, determined pursuit on your part. It just all reminds me so much of Mama, not the good side of all the talent she had, I mean, I like to think there was a good side to it, but how she was pulled this way and that by it, trying to express all this … all this music, all these voices inside her … it just seemed to make her worse in the end. You know, Mama used to try and get me to sing and play the piano when I was little, but after I saw where it took her, I decided, no way. Not me. You know what I’m trying to say, Alan? When I got with you, it was like for the second time I was left out … anyway, six months ago, I was at Mooney’s with everybody, and Judy was telling us about her new job at Pasadena Community College in the Records and Transcripts Department. Well, that made me remember Sharletta. I lied, told Judy that Sharletta was an old friend of mine and I’d lost contact with her. So a few days later Judy looked into her records and called me with … she gave me information so I could reach her and … I don’t know why, but … I mean, I don’t know what I would have said, but … I called the number and I found out … this man told me she was dead, she had died. It happened shortly after you held her in your lap. I always thought she’d just dropped out of class. As it turns out, you didn’t save her at all, did you? I guess that marked the official end of my damsel in distress fixation. When I found that out six months ago, I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stand to be touched anymore.”

She’s aware that her short burst of harsh laughter sounds more like a muted bark, suddenly aware that she’s in the fast lane and driving at about 25 miles an hour while motorists, as though to ram her forward into greater speed, angrily approach her from the rear and then pass her with brutal acceleration. Aware that there’s been no comment to anything she’s been saying and so shifts her eyes to the rearview and sees an empty back seat, no Alan, because … no Alan because he’s at home and in bed, that’s right, called in sick this morning, or wasn’t really sick, was he, wasn’t it just that he had “ideas he had to get down, that’s more important than work will ever be,” and to hell with the fact that he’s used up all his sick time and they’ll dock his pay, to hell with the fact that they’re almost three months behind on every bill, bills strewn across the kitchen table in dust-filmed, unopened envelopes. She’s aware that the rain’s falling heavily with a sound as of melancholy applause, aware of a red light ricocheting like a tennis ball through the air behind her. Highway Patrol? A motorcycle cop pulling her over, as though she’s committed some crime? Her heart pounds with excitement, almost with a confused glee, as she maneuvers the car onto the right shoulder. Rolls the window down.

He’s there already. “Maam, do you know you’re driving far too slow to be in the fast lane, or any lane, even under these weather conditions?”

She stares in mute fascination at his eyes, completely obscured by sunglasses that give his face an insect-like appearance. The helmet, shielding his head from … bullets, concrete, swinging fists … maybe even a lover’s demanding caress? As he takes a cautious step backward and bends slightly to get a better look at her face, she sees that his entire body is tautly sheathed, sleekly encased, the black boots stretching snugly up the length of the calves, the gear-laden belt hugging his waist, black leather gloves, black baton – it’s called something else too, night stick, yes, the night stick somehow fastened to his left hip, or no, more likely to the belt. A man protected, a man who realizes the value of protecting himself – in order to better protect others. A man whose job is to be invulnerable.

“I’ll need to see your license and registration please.”

“I’m sorry, it’s just … I can’t see your face because of those glasses, and it’s raining, and I’m thinking, ‘Why in the world is he wearing sunglasses and there’s no sun?’” An acid laugh sears her throat. “I know that’s a stupid thought on my part, but nevertheless …”

“Maam, I’ll have to ask you step out of the car, if you would?”

Is his hand moving slyly, unobtrusively to his holster? Moving imperceptibly to the gun on his hip? Her heart races in exhilaration. “It’s raining, and I’m hardly dressed.”

“I’m asking you to please step out of the car right now, maam.”

Slowly, watching him as though hypnotized, she steps out of the car. Into the pounding rain. Her pajamas are immediately soaked. Hair is flattened along the nape of her neck, flattened into her eyes. Rain runs down her face, forms a fragile necklace that hangs for a moment on her collarbone, breaks there, rolls down and plasters the absurdly thin material of the silk top, now nearly transparent, to her breasts. “What are your eyes doing behind those glasses, officer?” There’s a playful mockery in her tone. Playful but vicious. “I can’t see them.”

No answer. Rain loudly pebbles on the moon-white globe of the helmet, runs down the front of it in erratic rivulets, honeycombs on the smoky lenses of the sunglasses. She knows he can’t see through the watery film any longer, that his vision can’t penetrate the storm, that by now she‘s become a ghostly imprint on his retina. In fact, she’s certain he only knows that she’s standing in front of him because he senses her.

The gloved hands rise to the stems of the glasses, it appears that he’ll remove them, but he only makes a small adjustment, just the tiniest adjustment. Then the hands fall away to his sides.

  • Thursday Morning

Pulls through the gate and into the parking lot at Twell Systems, stops the car and then waits for Alan to get his briefcase and umbrella from the trunk. Muffled patter of rain on the roof of the car. To her right, a beige Volvo pulls jerkily into an adjacent parking space and without much interest Dara watches the young blonde woman hastily gather office paraphernalia from the seat next to her and emerge from the car. Alan passes the woman, that is, almost passes her – but does a doubletake when he recognizes her, hesitates, then keeps walking resolutely forward. Dara sees the woman’s profile, how she looks at Alan with a kind of furtive affection, how she quickly shifts her eyes and looks guiltily at Dara, then looks swiftly away. She, too, walks forward resolutely, but remains a few steps behind him. Hello or good morning would be appropriate, but neither says a word, as though they are complete strangers. As though they are conspirators.

Dara observes this surreptitious choreography of gestures abortively expressed and awkwardly withheld, gestures that are either a moment too early, or a moment too late.

And she knows.

Leaves Twell Systems and on the way home passes Forest Lawn, where Mama’s buried. Leandra too, right next to her. And maybe Sharletta? Sharletta who, like Dara, couldn’t be saved, buried somewhere at Forest Lawn, somewhere beneath those green placid hills, somewhere beneath all that quiet funereal beauty?

Drives through the gates of Forest Lawn, thinks she remembers clearly where Mama and Leandra are buried, but she hasn’t been here since Mama died 14 years ago, and the roads are all deceptively similar, some of them looping in great circles that bring her back to her point of departure. And the names of the roads are all exasperatingly similar, evoking serene and stately vistas: Chapel Lane, Angel Hills, Memorial Drive, Heavenly Manor. Drives for an hour, desperately looking for a familiar landmark. Hopeless, hopeless. Moving in hopeless circles, going nowhere, as usual.

Later, sees a elderly man – actually, gentleman flashes through her mind – ok then, an elderly gentleman’s sitting at the side of the road in what looks like a golf cart emblazoned with the Forest Lawn logo. Very dark complexion, scribbling of age lines on his face. For some reason she imagines the man as having marched next to Martin Luther King in Selma. Gets out of the car, doesn’t even think to carry her umbrella, crosses the road. As she approaches, he turns calmly, looks directly at her, and due to some unusual conjunction of angle and sunlight, his face, head, appear to be haloed in soft, brilliant light.

“Could you … I’m looking for Peggy Wilson … the headstone is numbered B29.” Wipes the rain from her face.

“You almost there. Right over that next little hill there. You find what you lookin’ for just them few feet away, young lady.” As he’s pointing, Dara stares at the man’s face. Knows it’s rude, but stares. Fissures and crevices carved into the mountain of years he’s climbed score his face, but the flesh isn’t hardened, as she thought when she was crossing the road. Rather, his face seems molded out of some soft and ancient celestial clay.

Over the hill, this section seems neglected, in fact, must trudge through small piles of rain-sodden leaves and twigs, but he’s wrong, damn it, this row of headstones isn’t what she’s looking for. Then lifts her head and her attention fans out to the two black women several feet away, or no, one child, one woman. Woman sits on the ground with her legs crossed Indian style before a headstone, and – Dara can’t believe this, it’s as though she’s witnessing an act that transcends comprehension – and she’s playing a wooden flute. Playing a goddamned flute. But as she listens, the delicate melody overpowers her outrage and conjures in Dara’s mind the dusty fronds of a willow trailing over the surface of a crystalline pond, setting in motion ripples that widen out and flow with dreamy transparency under her feet, lifting her gently, transporting her back to the source of the song. And when she arrives, she finds herself standing next to the woman, who’s still sitting before the headstone and filling the cavity of the flute with the wispy warmth of her breath, and the child, who takes Dara by both hands and begins to dance. Dara can’t believe that she’s participating in this, allowing this to happen, can’t believe in her own easy complicity, peers into the child’s face as though attempting to discover an explanation for it all. But a coarse veil of rain hangs over the child’s face, she can’t make out the features, nor the features of the woman whispering her song into the flute. Then why do they seem somehow familiar? The veil falls heavily, woven of rain and now the evening too, the violet-gray hue of impending twilight. It falls heavily, covering everything, weighing down the branches of these trees, shrouding the name etched into the headstone the woman sits in front of, muffling the distant sound of traffic from the nearby Ventura Freeway, pulling down everything except this dance.

  • Friday Morning

Decides to change the agenda this morning, and Alan’s shocked. She tells him, insists really, that she be the passenger, he the driver. So he’s pulling out of the driveway, he’s nervous as if suspecting that this insignificant change in routine might signal a change more portentous, knocks over the garbage can as he’s backing out. Guess men have intuition too, guess he’s always had it, must have, since he writes music.

So on the freeway, she reclines her seat a few inches and closes her eyes. Senses that he’s waiting for her to say something, so she does. “You have a tape, Alan?”

His silence is alchemy, the distillation of his perplexity. In the distance, above the San Gabriel Mountains, there’s a shallow flash followed by the sound of a whip being weakly cracked by a languid hand. Thunderstorm, rare in Southern California. It happens, but usually in the mountains – or is it the deserts? – and it’s not generally so visible. Rain thickens as it falls, heavy open vowels and consonants of rain, a droning monologue that fills her ears with a merciless chatter.

“Tape?” he says cautiously.

“I heard you in your studio the other night. I thought maybe you had a tape I could listen to.” Her eyes are closed. “It sounded like you were finishing something. You know how you can tell when something is about to end.”

“I can’t believe that you’re actually asking me about a song I’m working on.” Her eyes are closed but she imagines, from the sound of his voice, that he’s shaking his head in bitter disbelief. “You never cease to amaze me, Dara.”

“I amaze myself sometimes.”

“I mean, what’s this sudden interest? You didn’t show any interest when I wanted you to, or needed you to. You thought it was just something else I was doing that I’d fail at.”

“Oh, now that’s not fair, Alan.” She speaks slowly, softly, and the sound of her own voice soothes her as she imagines the clamorous rain as warm, tropical, penetrating the roof of the car, penetrating her skin, an anointment of rain her body responds to almost sensually, as though a deep, ever-present cellular thirst has finally been quenched. “That’s simply not fair. You assume I wasn’t interested. But maybe it’s just that I know best. Maybe it’s just that you would have resented my interest. Taken my interest as a threat, seen it as an intrusion into your … your sacred creative space.”

“I don’t care anymore that your only way of communicating with me is to patronize me.”

“No?”

“No, I don’t.”

“I suppose not. After all, you’re so busy writing sophomoric love letters to your little blonde at work.” Eyes still closed, voice still slow and soft with a leisurely sensuality. “A dozen little ridiculous schoolboy notes where you pour your silly heart out, explaining how misunderstood you are, how you’re not being allowed to reach your potential, how every fucking body is dead set on holding you back.” A delicate bubble of laughter rises to her lips, escapes her lips airily. “How all you need is someone – ‘someone like you, Gina’ – to believe in you.” She doesn’t understand the drowsy note of kindness, compassion in her voice. “And all that business about race, that was just your pathetic rationalization, wasn’t it? I never knew you were such a hypocrite.”

Downpouring rain, a conflagration of rain, rain falling with the sound of a sweeping wildfire, as of flames moaning, crackling with vociferous intensity, sizzling through solid matter itself, rain wrapping everything in the sound of electricity freed from the wire. Eyes are closed. She imagines the look on his face, no, doesn’t want to imagine it, doesn’t want to imagine the lie that’s only moments from utterance flickering in the muscular contraction of his jawline, doesn’t want to see the rapid series of disoriented blinks or the flick of his tongue, serpent-like, to moisten lips parched with nervousness. He’s silent so she goes on. “I found them in the back pocket of the jeans you threw in the clothes hamper.”

“What are you talking about? Those are notes … they’re just notes for some songs I’m about to write. Like a, well – a series of songs, all on the same theme. A song cycle … if they were letters to someone, do you think I’d be stupid enough to leave them in my pocket … ”

And so on, but she’s not listening because she begins to notice something peculiar: the familiar descending whine of traffic passing at high speed starts to become less … random, less mechanical – it’s no longer purely noise. Cars hurtling forward cleave the air when they pass, and in the moment of cleaving there’s a precise tone, not a whine at all but a vibration that blossoms into a tone. The tone lingers, fades, and in the second before it ceases to exist, the next car passes and another tone is born from the womb of acceleration, takes the place of the dying one, vibrates a little louder or softer, higher or lower, depending on the speed of the car. And gradually, gradually she begins to hear one continuous stream of sound that fluctuates first within a narrow range, and then, when the range yawns, opens up, the tones inside this expansion soar to wider and wider intervals, begin to take on the form and shape of an ethereal melody, dissonant yet mournfully beautiful. Hands in her lap begin to tremble slightly, heart expands with adrenaline as her ears plunge through all her frozen years of deafness to some new depth of hearing and the lunging cars yield phrase after phrase of a hollow, droning, bagpipe-like music, a cascade of melody ceaselessly snaking up and down an intricate, other-worldly scale. She knows, no, feels, that it’s still raining, but the sound of the rain withdraws into a hush, recedes into silence.

“My god,” she whispers, “just listen to that.” Must open her eyes, can’t keep them closed anymore. Looks over at Alan, who seems to have worked himself into a rage of self-justification, seems to be chewing a mouthful of toxic words, but she doesn’t hear him. He’s been reduced by this raw, spectral music of acceleration to a character in a silent film.

Suddenly all lanes slow down, traffic jars to a halt. She sees Alan’s lips part and purse slightly as he mutters what must be some sibilant expletive. So she won’t lose it, she strains to hear the east-bound traffic traveling in the opposite direction on the other side of the divider, don’t let it go, find it, yes, there it is, it’s there, she picks up the whine, then the broader undercurrent, the mumbling, sighing, moaning, and finally the blossoming of noise into song takes place and melody, like a swarm of buzzing bees, spreads through the air.

She opens the car door. Very faintly, she can hear Alan exclaim in surprise, can dimly hear, as though from a great distance, the bell that rings in gentle admonition when the car door’s opened. Starts to get out of the car, leaves her purse on the seat and then remembers all the love notes – notes to what’s-her-name, Gina, – the “lyrics” that she stuffed in one of the purse’s zippered compartments this morning, removes them and gets out.

She begins walking.

A loud, flatulent blast disrupts for a brief moment the flow of the melody she follows as she walks between the lanes of gridlocked traffic, and she knows it must be Alan, chagrined and furious, blowing the horn behind her, but she doesn’t let it go, doesn’t lose it this time, yes, there it is, right there, and so she walks on, straight down the middle of the freeway. And as she moves ahead, holding the crumpled pile of notes in her left hand and plucking them one by one with the thumb and index finger of her right hand, then feeding them one by one into the wind and the silent rain, she realizes that having found it, heard it, she must never let it go, never lose it again. No, she’ll never let it go, she’ll follow it no matter what, as though both her past and future depend on it. She’ll follow it no matter where it leads, whether or not what she hears holds the cruel promise, the shallow reassurance of a destination.

Once again, the horn blows faintly behind her, ghostly and now miniaturized by distance, but this time there’s no disruption.

She doesn’t look back.

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