King of the Sly

February 3rd, 2010

The remarkable thing wasn’t even the unmistakably canine discovery of the machine, or the sounds that came with it, the huffing and wuffing and remarkable amalgam of sounds produced by lipless salivating. Nor was the remarkable thing the four preceding unmistakably canine discoveries that weren’t accompanied by owners attentive enough to follow suit, sniffs unrealised, dragged away from discovery by the impatient or ignorant or tasked for time. Well, actually, these were all remarkable, if Sly were to be trusted, but trusting Sly on matters such as this is akin to trusting a common housefly to be discerning in its taste for shit, which is an admittedly crass way of suggesting we just don’t.

But to the common housefly as to our quite uncommon Sly, this was presently the furthest thing from the frontal lobe. He sat perched, his posture made horrific with his focus and his hands cupping earphones to make sure the real world didn’t run interference on his listening pleasure. His was the portrait of trancelike assiduity of the kind expected from brain surgeons and rocket scientists, not underpaid professor’s assistants, and he wasn’t even sure what he was listening for. The Professor had left a note asking him to spend time overhearing public conversations and make note of outbursts, with no further enumeration, and before he set the tape into motion, he’d carefully mapped out on grid paper a list of the basics: he would make a note of conversational laughter, random expectoration, shouts, infant cries, bursts of song, whistles, cries for help, sweeping romantic gestures of swooniness, coughing jags, and volcano eruptions or related natural events. The plan was to listen clear through, make a time code note for each occurrence of each event, and tally them all up at the end. Maybe bind it up in a nice folder if the report extended to multiple pages, or pull out the highlighting markers and turn the entire thing into a take-me-seriously chart. The Nagra was his idea too, so that he wouldn’t be made a slave to the speed of his own handwriting, and convincing Flax to let him surreptitiously snag it for a day (his idea), and, of course, leaving it unattended so that he could be sure his presence wouldn’t affect the results in any way (nothing short of brilliance, if you ask him). He was thinking like a scientist, thinking like someone important doing important work for a professor, thinking like a guy made of higher thinking itself. Or at least this is what he’d thought before his ears were covered and his pen positioned ready and at the grid and ready to make its mark. But when the tape was threaded and the play button pressed, a different story was told, and so he sits, transfixed, with not a mark to be made.

What he was discovering, were he able to clear the fog from his own purview and make any kind of real-time sense of it, was that when measured in purely auditory terms, everything was an outburst. All of it. The wind. A shuffled step passing by. The flop of a tired body hitting the bench, or the grace of a more active one placing itself there. The feet of a trained runner hitting the walkway at something like five-Gs as they burst by the input center from right channel to left, and those of a late-for-worker hitting just as hard, but with the not-to-be-mistaken thud of a loafer. The babble of a baby accompanied by the screech of a stroller and, barely trailing, the military clip of a mother’s pumps, or were they the nanny’s? The hit of soda can in garbage pail, and the sniff of a dog to the recording input. He wasn’t making romantic gestures about the entire business: this wasn’t a moment of transcendental elevation, nothing hippie about it at all, matter of fact. Just the general wowishness of amplification and clarity of specific sounds, maybe with a tinge of confusion for what to do with his grid-papered cross-purposelessness. And with the echo of every last, he made his way through the entire eight-hour recording, including the muffled bits (as evidently one of the canine explorers had decided to take a warm respite on the machine’s top), without once coming up for air, and only now, in a dark-circle daze and in need of coffee, he barely makes his way to the outer circles of doors on this new mission when he passes Flax checking back in for the day and making his way to his own perch.

“You doing a double shift or something? How can you be back already?”

“Never mind that. What are you still doing here? Must’ve been something great on that tape.”

“Incredible things. Need caffeine and a re-view to take it all in. If it weren’t confidential I’d let you listen. One day, when it’s published. Want anything from the outside?”

“Never want anything from the outside. Hence here I am.”



Which was about as much conversation as these two were capable of summoning that wasn’t directly on the topic of homemade take-up reel extenders or their latest plans for new SNR measuring techniques. Good thing he didn’t actually apply any of these techniques for his radio hoedown yesterday. And had that all happened yesterday already? Well, sure, at least, according to the altered states of gracelessness of his every nerve after so much time spent awake, and so much of that waking time spent seated nearly immobile and auditorily engaged in a world not his own. Now, with the breeze (whose sound when not on the skin was nothing more uplifting than luctisonus) waking him up just enough to begin to process what he’d been privy to, he made his way to the corner deli and back, then decided on a walk round the block in hope of kicking his legs back into motion while assembling and replaying a sort of greatest highlights reel as best as he could from memory.

The most memorable to recap in great detail were the conversations, and he’d positioned the recorder at just such an angle to capture distinct voices as well as their positions on the benches, and, the more he listened, the angle at which information was lobbed back and forth. There were outbursts in almost all the conversations, but nothing like what he’d been anticipating to track on paper. In what would be the most scandalous were this a small enough town to recognise others by voice alone, two women, young and educated (or, he allowed himself in a wisp of longing, being educated at this very university, which wasn’t so unlikely, given proximity and the hour, which he’d have to confirm but which could well have been one of the scheduled breaks between class hours). Two young women sharing a hushed conversation, the one on the left (the left when seated, not when standing in front of the bench, “bencher’s left,” as he’ll now refer to it) speaking through obviously labrose lips, while the one on the right – on the bencher’s right – had the higher pitch to her voice and a slight lilt that she’d learned to mask over what must have been a decent number of years, and after their requisite exchange of hiyas and hellos, he’d recreate the exchange from memory as follows:

Left: Did you tell Doug yet about the thing you bought?

Right: What thing?

Left: That thing you bought. The thing the came from the shop in the Mission?

Right: Oh no, I don’t think I’m going to tell him about it. It’s embarrassing.

Left: Well, you could always suggest that it’s something you bought for the two of you to use together.

Right: Actually, no. I don’t want to use it with him, not after the thing with the fruit.

Left: You still haven’t gotten over that? It’s a phase – you’ve got to let it go.

Right: Well, I know. It’s complicated. Anyhow, I gave it a try last night – without the thing, I mean. I even bought a bottle of wine. That stuff I drank at your house that one time, that I liked so much and that warmed me right up. Mer Lot? [Note that this, were it Sly’s transcription from a mental recollection, would be drawn out as pronounced, with obviously bisected phonetic syllables and even an obvious pause between the two]

Left: Right, Merlot. But how’d it go?

Right: We got caught up in studying and forgot to drink it.

Left: Oh honey, listen. Just buy a really smooth record, something with a little jazz to it, something that makes you snap your fingers or groove just a little, you know? Put it on, open the wine, and let it happen. Maybe even, here’s an idea, warm yourself up for a few nights with the new toy, you know, by yourself? Get yourself in the mood before you go all-in.

Right: What? New toy?

Left: The thing you bought? I can’t believe you’ve pushed it this far back into the subconscious. Weren’t we just reading about this?

Right: Oh, right, that. It’s just I’m so tense lately. And the fruit, I know, I should get over it. But you should have seen it. And it’s such a shame– I mean, I like him so much. I should just go for it. Do you want to go record shopping?

He would really have to make a note to check out the psych classes. And women really bought those things! He’d always assumed it was something men bought for their women, or to, well, to test certain things for their own selves risk-free. Or, on their own selves, he supposed. In their own selves? But now – anyway! One ten-minute conversation on a bench, and all was straight in his head, or relatively straight. Or perfectly straight, as far as this one very specific slice-of-life was concerned.
And this example only barely scratched the itch of what he now knew after one cold listen. He turned the corner and made his way back through to the insides of the doors, ready to give the tape another whirl. After he stopped in for a pee, which at this point, was at the very top of his must-do-right-this-second list.

One Response to “King of the Sly”

  1. jon Says:

    and whatever did she do with fruit?

Leave a Reply