The Next Thing I Don’t Want To Hear
How I got here is irrelevant. The fact that I’m still here is scary. What I find it hardest to wrap my mind around is the fact that you're reading this with an unmodulated frequency.
When your eye sees words, your inner ear hears them spoken in your voice. There’ve been scientific studies. I’m not sure why that would be of interest to a scientist. If I wore a labcoat and goggles to work and my workplace contained shelves of beakers of strangely inviting florescent liquids that fizz, I can assure you I’d be studying something way cooler than that, like, skin grafts that give birth to tiny snapping turtles that crawl up the patient’s arm every time he cries, or something. But it is an empirically proven fact that since you have never met me, you are hearing this all wrong. Mind you, there is a reason I bring that up.
Okay, I probably should start with how I got here. Without boring you, let’s just say I was on the highway, got sidetracked, sidetracked turned into lost, lost turned into an empty gas tank on a road that looked to be straight out of one of those low-budget horror flicks where idiot college kids get tortured by demon farmers and the final frame shows an antique windmill spinning with the sun setting behind it and that music like a fart stretched, slowed down and lowered through an entire octave, synchronized with the sped up sunset, and then the synthesized dissonance gives way to some jarring heavy-metal song as the credits roll. Yeah, anyhow, imagine my enthusiasm at having to leave my Volvo in a ditch.
I won’t tell you where I came from—nothing personal, but I don’t think we’re quite that confidential—so there’s really no way to explain to you why I did what I did. Just take my word that it made perfect sense.
What I did was I opened the trunk, grabbed a flashlight and a duffel bag with my clothes and toiletries in it, left the car door open with the key in the ignition and walked into the woods. It felt good, like diving off a cliffless cliff might feel good. I didn’t think about much. The pine needles stung me through my socks a little bit, but then my heels got kind of numb. My mind did the same thing; I walked on it so much it just sort of got into a rhythm and tuned out. When I got hungry, I didn’t care. When I got tired, I slept. Then I was in someone’s backyard with a swimming pool and an apricot-faced pug barking at me (the bark struck me as odd, it had this musical quality to it, but I didn’t think anything of it then). There was probably some stuff that happened in between, but I all I remember is like I just told it.
What would you do? You were one coin toss away from offing yourself, instead- no, I said I wouldn’t go into that. Forget I said that. Never mind. I just am where I am, that’s all. I don’t approve of trespassing, but I figure since I’m already at some fellow’s house, might as well knock on the door.
Middle-aged guy wearing a flannel bathrobe—looked regular enough. I don’t remember what I said to him, but I think it’s safe to say that slamming the door in my face was an overreaction. I’m sure it was something to the effect of "Howdy, I apologize for the imposition, but I was just wondering if you might be so kind as to inform me of what county I’m in." I didn’t request to use his phone—I’d never ask that of a stranger. Plus, didn’t have nobody to call. That door slam shook me up. And the way he looked at me—it wasn’t normal. Closest thing to it would be the time I came home drunk from my seventeenth birthday party and tried to lift up the fish tank and move it on top of the stove so I could make me some instant seafood chowder and my dad came downstairs and bodyslammed me against the wall, and then held my gaze.
I started walking. All the houses on the block sort of looked the same—Italian style, large backyards, pretty mailboxes. This was nothing like the road where my Volvo had expired.
The next person I met was the sheriff. That’s when I realized how aberrant this place was.
I asked the cop the same question I asked the flannel bathrobe guy. As soon as I started talking, the cop whipped out a pad of paper and started writing me a violation. Then he explained to me what the ticket was for. When he started talking, my mouth just about dropped to the pavement. Normally I’d’ve busted a gut laughing, but it’s the kind of situational funny that’s only funny if you're with someone else and you can both share in the absurdity and assure each other that you're the sane ones.
The sheriff did not speak. He sang.
It’s a gated community of sorts, as I later came to understand. It’s called Aramis. The fact that I stumbled upon this town was an anomaly; it’s not on any maps. There’s a history behind it, but I won’t go into that. Founded by some aging Broadway star who faked his own death to the media sixty years ago. The entire cast of his last musical went along with him and started making babies. I don’t know how the logistics of that would work, but, well, what you see is what you get. Most of the people who reside in Aramis ain’t never been anywhere else. Like, literally, anywhere else. That confounded me at first, but now it gives me a warm sort of feeling, like butter sliding down a sloping pancake. Like I said, I’m still here.
My next stop was the local saloon. That’s where things gelled together.
Before I go any further, I need to establish a cypher so you won’t completely misread this, as you naturally would. Key to remember is, everybody’s voice is unique, and I don’t just mean the timbre, I mean melodically, everyone has their own range, their own tempo. And, you know, stylistically.
The rule in Aramis is, every word must be sung.
It feels alien and vulgar to use the word ’sing.' I’ve been so conditioned, singing is just like not crapping your pants. There’s no one word that means voluntarily not crapping your pants, you just don’t crap your pants, because, why would you? When I read text, my inner ear hears everything in ’song,' as you would say. When I think of you reading this in Old World Monotone, it makes me want to burn these pages.
A few cultural idiosyncrasies to be aware of: in casual daily interactions when emotions are not involved, it is customary for ladies to speak in a minor key at all times, and males in a major key, for ease of distinction.
If I were to quote residents without supplying a musical staff, time signatures and ledger lines, I’d be essentially telling lies. Due to time limitations, I’m proposing a shorthand: beneath each line of speech, you will see a note progression in parentheses, for instance, if somebody were to say "you left the toilet set up," it would be displayed as follows:
"You left the toilet seat up"
The strike-through indicates Middle C. The dash between the first E and the second E represents a tie for two beats, over which the same syllable is held. Assume a beat is equivalent to an eighth note. A letter in italics means that it is sustained for an entire measure. And if I ever print a letter in superscript, that means it’s been transposed up an octave, and vise versa. The % symbol will be used for a rest of one beat, and the $ means a half rest. As for accidentals, b obviously means flat, and # is for sharp. This of course doesn’t account for articulation and dynamics, but it’s good enough for our current purposes…the saloon.
Now, due to the richness of the dimensions of vocal expression afforded to the Aramisians, there are many idioms the translation of which would require tedius footnotes. For instance, when one man is trying to pick a fight with another man, a typical taunt would be "Shouldn’t you be singing in a minor key?" I will try and simplify these idioms as best I can.
I was drinking whiskey and tonic and eavesdropping on the table behind me where a woman was giving her slightly younger friend relationship advice.
"You both lapse into a Phrygian key when you're angry, you'll drive each other up the wall. Can’t you find yourself a sweet, dependable B-flat major with chiseled abs and an estate in the hills?"
"B-flats bore me."
Oh yeah, one thing I forgot to mention. At an early age, everybody naturally adopts a certain key as their "Norm Key." Obviously people use different keys for different occasions—you don’t talk to your supervisor in the same pitch and cadence with which you’d address a hoodlum mugging you in the park, now, would you? But everybody has a neutral they default to most of the time. I sing in A Dorian. It reveals a lot about a person. Much like astrological signs.
"You're the security guard to your own happiness, and it’s always ladies night."
(I can’t for the life of me remember the tune of that blurted remark, for which I apologize)
"What are you insinuating?"
Overhearing their discourse, that’s when I put two and two together. The first words out of my mouth delivered appropriately were
"Whiskey and tonic, please."
No sooner did I adopt Aramisian speech than a redhead named Melinda approached me and said
"You're a foreigner, aren’t you?"
We made love that night. When you’ve only interacted with a person in song—and the novelty of this way of life is still seductively new to you (trust me, it stops being absurd real real fast, and it starts to feel like I imagine an obese person might feel if they were to mysteriously wake up thin and agile)—that person’s orgasm sounds kind of like a song within a song within a sensation within a sensation. For some arcane reason, right before I exploded into an avalanche of languorous groping and rolling, I wondered who was driving my Volvo at that moment. The distance from here to the other side of those woods was something I could not visualize. Distance you feel but can’t remember is a strange kind of distance, because it doesn’t feel like lateral distance, it feels like height, and makes you want to grab onto the first solid thing you can find so that you won’t fall.
Melinda wanted to know what it was like to be from the outside. I tried to tell her what it was like, but telling her never satisfied. Melinda speaks in G-flat when she’s post coital. As I learned that night, so do I.
A few days later I gave my first public performance.
The ticket the sheriff gave me had no cash value. When you get caught speaking in Old World Monotone, for each word you flat-tone, you owe the entire town a rhyming couplet to be sung from the Center Square Court Gallows, to later be transcribed and archived. Every Sunday morning the townsfolk gather festively to hear the perpetrators give their public song. The Gallows is a suspended steel cage ornamented like a chandelier that slowly rotates, and contains a microphone. Every year a Gallows Greatest Hits compilation cd is released internally, and believe me it’s worth every shilling.
Another thing I forgot to mention: this is not complete madness. We’re a community founded on a few basic precepts that set us apart from the median of American culture. Some day when our ruins are discovered, there will be documentaries and treatises on the historical context that gave birth to Aramis, explanations, theories, inevitables… Some day I’m sure I'll write a diary revealing what prompted me to leave my Volvo in a ditch too, but it’s not exactly relevant. Fact is, it could have arisen any place any era. All it takes is a collection of ambitious people who agree on the fact that language -flat-spoken language, that is—is simply inadequate for self expression. When circumstances unfold and emotional tabs run high, you can adjust the volume of your voice, you can adopt physical mannerisms and you can tap reservoirs of words that you reserve for extreme occasions, but you can also do so much more.
Back when cavemen banged rocks against igloo walls to convey information, there was probably one lone guy in the village who had the novel idea of communicating with grunts, and everybody laughed him out of town, branding him a pretentious and subversive rebel given to flights of fancy. Aramis is just another step in our species' evolution toward an enlightened harnessing of the full symphony of expression.
It seems trivial to mention the obvious justification that singing promotes healthy lymph nodes.
It’s not as if singing is all these people hear. We watch daytime television. Old World Monotone can predominantly be heard in the theater. It takes talent to flat-tone convincingly and stay in character. There are two or three others like myself, foreigners who ended up here by route of some extensive accident, but by and large Aramis is socially insulated. Words carry intent. In the rest of the world, people just lie to each other. Once you're acclimated, you’d rather go through your day with handcuffs than leave Aramis.
My Gallows song was entitled "The Next Thing I Don’t Want To Hear."
The next thing I don’t want to hear is you're leaving me.
The next thing I don’t want to hear is I’m unemployed.
The next thing I don’t want to hear is we’re all fucked, bureaucratically, climatologically, gastrointestinally, fiscally, spiritually determined to lose consciousness, I left my consciousness in a ditch and now I’m making retribution for the misdemeanor of speaking without speaking, talking without thinking, thinking without knowledge, knowing without knowing more.
"I’d like to get to know you, but this all just seems unreal," (A,A,
"You're like a child," she said. Don’t worry about how she said that.
"I’m three years your senior and I’ve traveled far and wide, I don’t see how-" Getting cut off mid-song makes your cheeks vibrate like you’ve been punched.
"Up until last month, you never had a real conversation, and that makes you sheltered to the point of autism, now you wonder why you can’t get a job." If you’ve never had a fight with somebody entirely in song, you can’t imagine how badly the words sting.
Like I said before, I won’t get too personal here. I'll tell you anything in print, but the melody of what I’m telling you is, quite frankly, none of your business. If you spent an hour here, you’d understand.
Take good care of my Volvo. I think I'll be all right.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED