On my 27th birthday, I asked Susan Montaigne, a girl I dated at the time, to take me to dinner at the Old Time Spaghetti Factory. It was only our fourth date, and I didn’t want her to spend an extravagant amount on a relationship neither one of us was certain would last. For the occasion, Susan requested a table inside the renovated trolley car installed to the left of the entrance, surrounded by dining tables and booths and elaborate light fixtures from the ceilings and, all around us, miniature replications of works by the British masters.
Our table was set against the wall of the trolley car, and Susan and I faced each other in front of a glassless window that looked down on the balding pate and perm of another couple outside the car. Next to us a family celebrated the son’s birthday, and the son and I looked across from each other with contempt. The space between our two tables barely allowed the waitress to slip through and deliver the free bread I ate without pause throughout the entire experience, one side of each free slice smoothed with garlic butter and powdered with Parmesan cheese. When the bread was gone, I’d discreetly pour teaspoonfuls of Parmesan cheese and eat them.
Susan told me about how, at work, her boss the assistant manager had told her she “screwed everything up” by being a half-hour late, even though she’d called Waldenbooks before it opened and explained that her grandmother needed to be dropped off at the hospital for her monthly injections. When she walked in at 10:30 she saw the line of people at the register holding copies of the books she then remembered had been advertised for the past month, its release date Tuesday, my birthday. The assistant manager hissed the comment to her as she rushed around the counter and logged in to her register. Susan told me she didn’t speak to him the rest of the day, even when he tried to engage her in conversation when the rush subsided. He even asked her how her grandmother was—Susan’s grandmother was three years dead. She’d really been late to work because of a second bowl of bran and a syndicated rerun of the Hogan Family. At that early stage, I was beginning to understand that Susan’s conscience was based upon her personally constructed reality.
“Wow, to think that my birthday falls upon such an occasion as the release date of Dragon’s Wing, Knight’s Blade,” I said. “I’m honored.”
Susan held her glass of water in one hand and rolled her eyes.
“Excuse me for a moment,” I said, digging into my front jeans pocket. I’d felt a vibration from my mobile phone—a brief flash that indicated a text message.
“That’s strange,” I said, scrolling through.
“What’s up?” Susan said.
“Nothing, I think. Just a birthday wish. But it’s from a number I don’t recognize.”
The message read exactly:
Happy Birthday, Jeffery! I wish you to get everything you DESERVE.
“Kind of sinister,” I murmured, looking at the number again, but at that moment the wait staff went into the “Happy Birthday” song for the kid next to us and Susan didn’t hear what I’d said. I figured I would write back later and ask who it was.
Susan pulled a hand-sized square from her purse, wrapped in red Christmas paper and tied with a curled ribbon.
“Well, I hope you had enough to eat,” she said, handing the package over to me. “And I also wanted to give you this.”
“Oh, this is too much,” I said, really quite delighted. “Can I open it now?”
“Of course,” she said. I noticed the father of the birthday boy glance over at us.
“Gosh, I love presents,” I said, and after untying the ribbon I opened the package at the taped edges as my mother had shown me, in case anyone wanted to save and reuse the wrapping. When the gift was completely uncovered the paper was a single un-torn sheet.
“Thanks,” I said through a false smile.
Susan had given me—I knew it as soon as it came out of her handbag—a CD. I’d had the notion she’d made a mix of her favorite songs, one of the fundamental steps in building our relationship. But instead of a hand-printed track listing on the CD cover I saw three heads cut off at the necks, each with varying degrees of facial hair: a compilation of the 70’s rock band Grand Funk Railroad. Having the distinction of not being an LP but an MP3, it included not only their greatest hits but all of the songs on all of the albums the band ever released.
I set the disc on the table. In the length of a single thought I knew it would go under that pile of CDs I owned but never listened to, like the Best Of record with which a secret Santa had rewarded me under the gross misapprehension I liked Ugly Kid Joe.
“I hope you like it.”
“Sure,” I said. “I really like ‘Slowride.’”
When the check came I made the pretense of going for my wallet, even opening it, and with relief I slid it back into my pocket when Susan waved her hand. I’d only brought a couple of dollars anyway.
We had another date Friday and since I’d gotten paid I felt comfortable splurging for a movie and dinner and a few drinks afterward. Susan wasn’t a big drinker, and as not to appear as big a drinker myself I kept my number of martinis to a record-low of three. Afterwards she acquired a reckless attitude reinforced by her rum and diet coke, and I took full advantage of her tipsy-ness by accepting the invitation into the apartment she shared with a sleeping roommate.
We made love. It was ultimately satisfying, but a disquieting feature of the proceedings was that, more than once, I saw her staring amorously at our reflection in the full-size mirror on the door of her wardrobe. I felt self-conscious, me not being a great fan of my nude reflection. When I would accidentally catch my own wide buttocks spread out in front of me I had to look away. In the morning, I woke up before she did and was perfectly happy not to have the coffee and improvised breakfast, trying to make small talk with the grumpy roommate I was sure we’d awoken the night before.
When I got home, I showered, read a few articles in an out-of-date Vanity Fair someone had left in my apartment weeks ago and answered a phone call from my friend Dave, who wanted to have a beer. I agreed, lying in bed in my underwear. Idly I began to scroll through the text messages on my mobile phone, erasing old ones, recalling parties and dates from two months previous. When I reread the message I’d received at the Spaghetti Factory I didn’t feel the same creepy impact I’d felt on Tuesday. Again, I wondered who’d sent it—but the message had gotten cold. It was too late to send a response to the birthday wish, and I didn’t care enough nor want to spend the money on a text message to find out identity of the sender. I deleted it from my phone. It was probably from someone in another department at work, someone I might have spoken with at a party and to whom I carelessly mentioned my oncoming birthday—and perhaps someone whose first language wasn’t English.
The text message reminded me of Susan’s gift, the Grand Funk Railroad MP3 that had already sunk halfway down the pile of rejected CDs. I put on a pair of pants and took the MP3 out of its case. Discs like this certainly weren’t licensed by the bands or the record companies. A few words in Russian stood out at the bottom of the back cover, under the song titles categorized by album. Where had Susan gotten it?
That was only the first question, which led to the fundamental mystery: why? Did she think I enjoyed Grand Funk Railroad enough to want to own a copy of every song they ever recorded? Had I ever given her the impression I liked Grand Funk Railroad or the kind of music bands like that made, or did I seem, in general, the kind of person who liked such a band? I’d never brought Susan over to my house, so she’d never seen the poster with the yellow background, the four heads of the mustachioed Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles in the foreground, which was taped lengthwise over my bed. I liked old rock and roll, but Grand Funk Railroad didn’t fall in to my sphere of aesthetics.
A more distasteful theory, but more probable, was that Susan really liked Grand Funk Railroad and wanted to “turn me on” to them. But what kind of girl likes Grand Funk Railroad? I shuddered when I imagined her at one of their reunion concerts, sweaty, poised on the shoulders of a baldie from the original era, the sleeves of her T-shirt ripped off, the front of which she lifted occasionally, to catch the eye of the guitarist. But what kind of dreams did the Grand Funk Railroad trio inspire? What kind of lost soul would find itself in the bombastic drumming, the over-stimulated production? Unless she received the MP3 from a boyfriend who couldn’t tell Grand Funk Railroad from the Kinks and she was simply re-gifting the MP3 to me, this Grand Funk Railroad disc represented some truth about Susan she couldn’t express in her own words. And like anybody, she relied on music to express her feelings for her. Perhaps she wasn’t even a fan; even if she didn’t like their music, perhaps she believed Grand Funk Railroad gave others a deeper glimpse into her psychological or emotional makeup, those parts not apparent in her eyes or seemingly unconscious gestures. I had sympathy. I felt the same way about Last Year at Marienbad—if anyone wants to know how my mind works, along what rigid lines it moves, they only have to watch that film. But I could never actually sit through Last Year at Marienbad again.
I’m no elitist. I enjoy Friends occasionally, when they don’t insist on creating yet another artificial romantic relationship between the limited pool of characters. I felt it was too hasty to dismiss Grand Funk Railroad out of hand—I’d withhold any criticism until I’d given the disc a fair listen. I put it into my stereo and let it play at a low level. The disc spun while I read another article in Vanity Fair, while I washed a week’s worth of dishes, while I dusted between my books and went through dirty clothes making a pile for the Laundromat, while I made a tuna sandwich and ate it. The more popular songs stood out, of course, at once, while the other songs slid away—and at that point I didn’t know whether they’d slid away into oblivion or some ultra-receptive, self-assaulting and hateful corner of my memory. The disc played when, after the exertion of lazy weekend chores, I lay down and thought about what groceries I needed from the supermarket. And the music still played when my mobile phone, right by my head, went off over the music.
“Where the hell are you? I’ve been waiting here a half-hour.” When Dave’s voice stopped, I could hear the distorted strains of loud music in my ear.
“Dave? Oh shit, what time is it?” I looked over at my stereo, which displayed the time when it was turned off, but now it only read PLAY.
Playing the Grand Funk Railroad MP3 interminably.
“It’s 8:30. I’m about to split. I wanted to buy you a beer for your birthday, but Jesus—”
“Oh man, I’m sorry. I’m leaving now.”
I hung up, jumped into some clothes and locked the door to my apartment. I stepped into the car and the Oldies station came on a second before the engine. The Oldies station is my default radio setting, although I sometimes make unsuccessful forays into mainstream modern rock, becoming acquainted with such lamentably unforgettable characters as Good Charlotte, Hoobastank, and Avril Levaigne.
As I drove to Amy’s Place, a dive bar in Chinatown, I listened to the national DJ and his “Solid Gold Seventies” program, which broadcast every Saturday. I heard Terry Jacks and Mike Nesmith along with news bulletins from the void of those dead years. After a run of advertisements from the lube company, the supermarket chain, the department store having a sale, and a new film that had opened the day before, there was the acapella jingle theme of the program by the white female singers.
“It’s the top of the hour and time for our Solid Gold Seventies Rock Block—” I heard the familiar opening of a song behind the DJ, a guitar and organ intro I’d experienced earlier that day. “This working-class band hails from the Midwest and wants nothing more than to help you ‘party down’—the one and only American Band, Grand Funk Railroad!”
“That’s strange,” I remarked to the windshield, after I looked down at the glowing dial of my car radio. I didn’t change the station—there was nothing better on any of the other channels. It was a Grand Funk Railroad tune I didn’t recognize, but was sure I’d heard before.
Dave sat at a table eyeing a woman on one of the barstools. There was half a glass of beer in front of him.
“Finally, for Christ’s sake,” he said. “What happened? You doing the nasty with that chick from Waldenbooks?”
“No,” I said, reflecting upon the previous evening.
“You dog,” he said. “Come on, give me the scoops. When did it all happen? Second date? Third?”
“You know I’m not one to kiss and tell,” I said. “What are you drinking? I’m going to the bar.”
“No way.” Dave held out a twenty. “It’s your birthday. And put something on the jukebox while you’re up there. I’m tired of listening to Social Distortion.”
I got two beers and went over to the jukebox, the kind that had whole albums available for selection. I flipped through the CD covers, through Led Zeppelin and TLC, and stopped when I saw three faces I recognized—Grand Funk Railroad, their Greatest Hits. You could get three songs for a dollar, and I thought it would be funny if I spent a whole dollar on them.
When I came back “The Locomotion” had already begun. I handed Dave his beer and he looked around the bar, up at the ceiling.
“Did you pick this?”
“Yeah,” I said, smiling. “I’m kind of getting into them.”
He leaned in. “So tell me the story of you and what’s-her-name,” he said, skipping right past my ironic reference to Grand Funk Railroad.
I gave him the details of the past dates I’d had with Susan, with clinical elaboration on the night before. I really am one to kiss and tell, and with great relish.
“So she likes to look in the mirror? Awesome.” Now “Some Kind of Wonderful” played overhead. “Oh Christ, I can’t believe you spent good money on Grand Funk Railroad!”
“And there’s another one coming,” I said.
But Dave didn’t get the joke and after the run of Grand Funk Railroad we had to sit through the obligatory “Over the Hills and Far Away.” We talked a bit about our jobs and went home early, neither of us too drunk.
Even before I fully woke up the next morning a wordless, five-note melody played in my head. Five notes repeating over breakfast, while I brushed my teeth and shaved. I tried to remember the rest of the melody, to locate whence it came. After several attempts at recalling different songs I’d heard in the recent past, I finally stood up, cried “It’s that damn Grand Funk Railroad” and went over to the stereo. If I couldn’t locate that song and play it entirely, I’d have that brief part in my head all day. For over an hour, I went through different parts of songs, sometimes whole halves, until I found the melody. At last I could flesh it out, make it real, not some lingering strain to haunt me through my activities. Soothed somewhat, I got dressed and went to the grocery store.
The muzak in the supermarket was so bizarre, with its unusually heavy chamber strings and synthesized percussion, that I asked the cashier, while she ran my canned goods over the red laser, what it was. She said she was sure she didn’t know, that she could hardly hear it. I remarked that it should be changed, that she should mention it to her manager, that the whole time I’d been walking through the aisles I felt disturbed, uneasy. Perhaps it was pitched at too high a key?
Later that night I called Susan and we chatted for a bit, agreeing to see each other again on Wednesday. “She’s some kind of wonderful,” I said, hanging up the phone.
At work the next day, I was typing a daily report after lunch when Shanif, her hair in rows of braids tight down her head, rounded the corner of my cubicle and stood over me while I typed.
“Excuse me, Jeff?”
“Yeah?” I had a list of power verbs taped on the border of my computer screen and wanted to use at least five of them.
“Well, I was wondering—we all were wondering—if you could stop doing that.”
I turned and looked at her, my fingers paused over the keyboard. “What do you mean?”
“That yelling thing. The thing where you yell the same thing over and over.”
“Really?” I said, looking around. I’m sorry, I didn’t even notice.”
“It’s that fucking Grand Funk Railroad song,” I heard Alvin yell from over the wall of his cubicle.
“You keep saying,” Shanif said, “I’m getting closer to my home. I’m getting closer to my home. Over and over.”
“How long was I doing that?”
“For nearly fifteen,” she looked at her watch, “no, twenty minutes.”
“Gosh Shanif,” I said, feeling a red heat in my face, “I’m sorry. I’ll shut up.”
She nodded and turned away. “Thanks,” she said, when she was out of my line of sight.
I did a hack ending for my report (using only three of the five verbs I’d planned on using) and sent it out, and for the next hour I sat in my chair, listening to myself lest I blurt out anything else unawares. I wasn’t prone to doing or saying things unconsciously. I’ve never once talked in my sleep, according to my girlfriends over the years. The fact that I’d been repeating a set phrase awake while oblivious of it was troubling. What if I were to let out some great secret to my coworkers without knowing what I was saying? What if they found out about me? I had no history of mental illness in my family, and no recent episodes of great stress. “I’m just getting older,” I told myself. I stood up and had a cigarette on the balcony.
As I put on my jacket at the end of the day Mr. Gladstone, my boss, approached me. I’d seen him looking around from the other side of the room, and when he found me he set his steps directly to my cubicle. Mr. Gladstone was bald and shorter than me, wore hound’s-tooth jackets. I was sorry for him because he was always intimidated when he had to discipline his subordinates.
“Jeffery, I hope I won’t use up too much of your time. I have to speak to you for a moment.”
“Sure, Terry,” I said. “What’s up?”
“It’s about your report today,” he said, holding a sheet in front of me. “Usually your reports are concise and descriptive, but today the language was—unacceptable.”
“What was the matter with it?” I took the sheet and scanned it—I’d judiciously used three power verbs. And to great effect, or so I thought.
“It’s just that some of your terminology is just not appropriate for a professional report,” Mr. Gladstone said, looking over my shoulder to point out the offending lines. “Here you mention that sales of product A-43 are in a ‘funk,’ while the results of target marketing product D-32 have been ‘grand.’ In this line you compare the overall progress of department J to the movement of a train—such figurative language is not appreciated by the administration, you understand, they like numbers and verbs. And, in probably the biggest error of the report, you describe the delivery team from downstairs as ‘some kind of wonderful.’”
I didn’t recall writing any of those words. But there they were, with my name on them. “Some kind of wonderful,” I said senselessly.
“That’s right, Jeffery. Look, I can make sense of this stuff, but admin—you know how they get. What made you want to take this kind of poetic license?”
“I don’t know, Terry,” I said, and began to take off my jacket. “I’ll rewrite it, and send it upstairs—”
He looked at me. “It’s all right. Go home. I’ll just need to change a few words here and there, and then I’ll hand it to admin.” Extending his benevolence for one moment, he was compelled to be stern in the next. “But I want to see a progress report up to your usual snuff next week.”
“Sure, Terry. Thanks.” I went to my car.
The radio started a second before my engine, and I was immediately thrust into the middle of Grand Funk Railroad guitar solo. “Jesus, what are you guys doing to me?” I cried, turning the radio dial off. But it was no use—I’d already caught the solo and my mind continued to play the song, repeating various parts, until I got home. I didn’t even know the song’s name.
I walked into my unlit apartment, threw my jacket in my armchair, and when I turned to switch on the light I saw three heads in shadow, looking out at me from the wall. “How did you get in here?” I whispered. Breathing heavily, I felt for the light. It wasn’t who I thought it was—there weren’t three heads but four, the Beatles smiling as if they knew what was happening to my mind. Not thinking, I turned on the stereo for company as I changed from my work clothes. The Grand Funk Railroad MP3 was in the player and the triple attack of drums, bass, and electric guitar came at me like a physical presence, like a shove from behind. I turned it off right away and went into my kitchenette to make dinner.
I went back into my bedroom/living room with two boiled hotdogs and mashed potatoes, thinking I’d eat them while I watched TV. I set the plate on the coffee table and turned on the television. The cable, it appeared, was out. I scrolled through channels of color bars, hoping for something, anything, and at last I came upon a commercial for tampons and left it there as I settled into my armchair. I was equally ready for a sitcom, a nature documentary, or a made-for-TV movie for women.
When I saw the spinning sphere icon that signified “Music Memories” I coughed up an un-mashed potato that had gone down un-chewed. In a brief introductory segment the program gave a general description of Grand Funk Railroad from obscurity to fame. Instead of turning the TV off, I watched the entire special with the belief that if I learned something about the band I would no longer be tortured by what I didn’t know, or only half knew. By becoming familiar with Grand Funk Railroad, I could, like the wise enemy, defeat them. Besides, I was afraid of silence, of being still, afraid of what I might hear or say.
At the end of the program I used the bathroom, brushed my teeth, and stood quietly over my bed for a few moments. I heard nothing. I got under the covers and went right to sleep.
I woke up the next morning to the sound of someone singing—me. I’d been singing loudly while I slept, for god knows how long, and when I closed my mouth the last words were “Everybody’s doing a brand new dance—”
I leaped out of bed, determined to engage myself in some activity to keep my mind occupied. I made an elaborate breakfast of pancakes, sausage, and oatmeal, made it desperately with full concentration upon the process of preparing each dish, and whether Grand Funk Railroad went on inside of me, or came out of me, I was too busy to notice. When it was time to get ready for work I tuned the radio to the classical station and sang opera through my window in incomprehensible syllables for as long as my throat and diaphragm would allow.
At ten o’clock my office mates would usually gather around the coffee machine for an informal break. Cookies and crackers were spread out on an aluminum tray with a snowy house printed on its face. I threw two chocolate chip cookies in my mouth to keep it busy while I stood around with the others.
“I can’t believe what happened to Charlie,” Alvin said. They were discussing a television series I had yet to see. He turned to me. “Did you ever imagine that?”
I swallowed what I’d been chewing and said, “No, unfortunately I didn’t see it.” And then I couldn’t help myself. “Did anyone happen to catch the Grand Funk Railroad doc last night? It was—grand.”
“Was it funky, too?” Shanif said.
“Man, this guy’s got Grand Funk Railroad on the brain,” Marshall said. “He’s been humming it all morning.”
“Damn it,” I said loudly, not to him, but a sharp “Damn it” in general—everyone turned to me, all of them silent. “Excuse me,” I said, and walked past, brushing Alvin on the shoulder.
The rest of the day I avoided staying in my cubicle for any prolonged period of time, where the others might hear me, except when I made a phone call to Susan to cancel our date Wednesday. I claimed I was sick. I made periodic trips to the bathroom to slap myself in the face—and I was frequently outside, smoking handfuls of cigarettes in one sitting.
Dave called when I had been at home for a few hours, but I had little to say beyond the limited vocabulary of Grand Funk Railroad and there was no point in a long conversation. I paced around the apartment with no appetite, no desire but to exorcise the jumbled melodies and lyrics that came in waves through my body, drowning out my thoughts. When it got too much to bear I turned on the stereo and played the first track on the MP3—and at once the noises in my inner ear, the disparate cries of the lead singer and the random cymbal crashes subsided, stopped torturing me as if they’d been momentarily appeased. I stood with my head close to the speaker, sweating. With Grand Funk Railroad playing externally, I didn’t hear it internally.
Finally thinking clearly, I grasped the enormity of the situation: Susan had cursed me. But why? Was I the vessel of masculinity she’d despised in secret all along, hating me behind her smiles, waiting until I was partial to her and receptive to her interests before she sabotaged my mind? Or was her evil, like the worst kind of evil, arbitrary? Was I to suffer only for her pleasure? While the disc moved through its tracks on the stereo, I fell into a blissful stupor, images of my revenge upon Susan turning to the grotesque. I fell asleep on the carpet without a pillow under my head.
The sun shone through the window when I awoke, its warmth going straight through my unchanged work clothes. I stood up, filled with wonder at the clarity of my mind. I could think! There were no tom-toms, no sledgehammer bass lines. I thought it was over, that the spell of temporary monomania had passed, until I glimpsed my stereo and understood how I’d regained control of my faculties. The MP3 was on repeat and Grand Funk Railroad still played unchecked. Preoccupied as I was with my thoughts, I hadn’t noticed the music. I ejected the disc, nearly breaking the CD drawer as I yanked it out. As soon as the music stopped Grand Funk Railroad went thundering along in my brain. I slammed the disc in its case and left the apartment for the mall.
Susan saw me coming from over one of her shelves and smiled at me as I came around and faced her. New Age section. It made sense.
“Oh, you’re visiting me at work!” she said, the liar, and under the delight in her voice was the evil of a sadist, a bloody sorceress. Then her smile fell to a look of mock concern. “Oh Jeff, you don’t look so well. Are you sure you should be out of bed?”
“You’d like to see me lying down,” I said, much too loudly. A fellow in khakis sitting on a footstool looking at an illustrated military history hardcover looked over the lenses of his reading glasses at me. I was glad to have a witness. “Lying down dead!”
She stepped back. “What?”
“You’re such a liar,” I said. “You lie to your boss, you lie to me, you lie to everyone.”
Her face reddened as she pretended to be offended. “What’s your problem, weirdo?”
“My problem?” I raised the Grand Funk Railroad MP3. “It was a grand scheme, Susan. With this disc you could put a spell on me, get me into some kind of—funk, and then I would be railroaded into hearing ‘We’re an American Band’ every second of the day.”
“How did you do it, Susan? I thought we were having a good time together, some kind of wonderful. I wanted to do the locomotion with you, near the railroad, and everything—but why this fucking band, Susan? Can’t you see what it’s doing to my mind?”
“Are you listening to yourself? Have you gone insane?”
I threw the disc against the bookshelf. The case broke open and the CD rolled a short way before reflecting a prism on its blank, mirrored side. “I just want it turned off, Susan. I don’t know how you did it, or why Grand Funk Railroad. But just turn it off.”
I walked toward the exit. The situation would have been easier for me to swallow if I was insane. Instead, I knew exactly what I was saying, how absurd it was. I only slightly heard Susan call out from behind me: “The only reason, you fucking psycho, I gave you that disc is because I called your work and some guy said you were into them.” I barely heard her voice fill with fake tears. “I thought you’d like that gift, you asshole. He said you would think it was funny.”
I was already late for work but as soon as I left the store, I realized that I’d thrown away the only antidote to the unceasing music in my mind. Panicked, the sludgy melody of another Grand Funk Railroad song beginning to drown me with its turgidity, I ran down the escalator to the Sam Goody and, moving quickly, flipped through wrapped compact discs in the “G-Rock/Pop” section. I found three records—two album releases and Best Of—and brought them to the cash register.
“Is this all the Grand Funk Railroad you have?” I said.
The cashier was one of the dyed-black hair, tie-wearing, post-punk emo music snobs who play bass guitar in a noise rock band. They perch behind espresso machines in Starbucks, hunch over the info desk at Borders, scrape grills at vegetarian diners. He looked at my stack of CDs and smiled, not unfriendly.
“Isn’t that enough Grand Funk for anyone?”
“Look in the back,” I said dangerously—the twitching in my cheek, the tight lips immediately indicating that I was not to be made small talk with. While he was away from the counter I greedily went over the photographs, track listings, and copyright information on each of the shrink-wrapped CDs. He returned with a Grand Funk Live reunion album from the 1990’s. “It’s the only other one we’ve got,” he said. “And it’s kind of recent, so I don’t know if you’ll like it.”
“It’ll do,” I said, not even looking at the black and white cover. “Ring it up. No, wait, wait—this too.” It was too much effort to grit sense through my teeth, what with the riffs going in circles around and around, the drum playing fills and reversing and playing fills again. I ran over to a shelf and took a portable CD playing boom-box and set it on the counter. “And these batteries.” In my car, I unwrapped the first CD with my teeth and slid it into the player, studying the tiny printed liner notes while I drove.
I walked in the office unwashed, unshaved and rumpled, with a new boom-box under my arm. As I made my way to my workstation, I noticed the others looking up at me. I didn’t care if they noticed I hadn’t changed clothes. The drums were pounding at my temples, the bass throbbing between the beats. They knew—but to what extent? I slunk past their stares and set the boom-box on my desk, intending to play a disc at a low level. Maybe it would be enough.
“Jeffery.” Mr. Gladstone stood behind me while I tried to locate the volume controls. He said the name gently, and I knew right then how hard it would be for that kind man to do what he had to do. I dropped my head and turned around, not facing him, still looking at the floor. My fear had dampened the sound inside.
“I’m sorry—we’re all sorry—” and at this I lifted my head and saw the entire office standing beyond him. What was this? Had they come to witness my termination personally, to mock me—or worse, pity me?
“Don’t,” I said.
“Jeffery, we’re sorry that we never, as your respected and beloved coworkers, recognized or celebrated your birthday. Happy birthday, Jeffery. Belated, of course, but please believe me when I say no one knew.”
“Whoo!” Alvin yelled, and everyone clapped their hands. All this clapping made me nervous—it sounded like the audience from a live album.
“We all put a little pot together to get you a gift,” Mr. Gladstone continued, “and Marshall searched high and low to find you the right one.”
Marshall stepped forward, next to Mr. Gladstone, his hands behind his back. “Now we all know how much you like music, Jeffery, especially the music of a particular band—”
“Don’t,” I said, but no one was listening to me.
“A particular band from the Seventies, what they’ve told me is an American band—all right, I don’t have to go on, you know what it is.”
Marshall pulled his hands from behind his back and unfurled a black T-shirt. The three-headed image of Grand Funk Railroad was embossed on the front.
Everyone applauded again and Alvin stepped up, snatching the shirt from Marshall.
“Come on, try it on, see if it fits,” he said, taking my arm and putting it through one of the sleeves. I could have resisted, but I stood there and let him dress me.
“That’s it,” he said. Meanwhile someone had brought out a cake and set it on the table and someone else began to cut it. The design on the frosting was an electric guitar and a drum kit together in a cluster.
“Geez, Jeff, I can’t believe you never let anyone know it was birthday last week,” Shanif said, licking a finger-full of icing from her index. “If a little birdie hadn’t told us—”
I felt as if someone had stabbed me in the spine with an electrified crowbar. I rushed over to Shanif, shoving Karla and Bruce and Marshall out of my way. “Who told you? Who told you it was my birthday?” I screamed, holding her by the shoulders. She didn’t look up at me—her gaze was locked on the six-eyed stare from the front of my over-large T-shirt.
“He did,” she said through her rattling teeth, and pointed to the rear of the office, at a single wooden desk not enclosed by a cubicle, where a man sat straight-backed writing something in longhand on a pad of yellow legal paper. I released her, the rest of the workers frozen in either disbelief or horror—it didn’t matter to me. I’m sure they all waited for when I’d go for the cake knife so that they could tackle me and bludgeon me into unconsciousness with some office object. Rather than reach for the knife, I walked to the rear of the office, toward the man whose old-fashioned desk was out of place with our Formica models, who was writing, writing, only stopping for an instant to flip the page on his legal pad.
He was young, not much older than me, and wore thick but rather stylish glasses. I could feel the weight of everyone’s naked glare as I slowly approached him, Grand Funk Railroad either sleeping or dead inside me. Aside sound the friction of his short pencil against the paper a hushed, unintelligible music played over a twin-speaker portable radio to which the man leaned one slightly cocked ear, as if he was transcribing what he heard over the airwaves. When I stood over his desk I saw four Beatles Yellow Submarine action figures in a row among his dictionary, his notebooks, his pencil sharpener, and his mug of writing implements, pencils in different colors and black and blue ball point pens, and the Panasonic radio. I smiled at the four toys, my eyes growing wet—it was as if I was seeing four friends I knew I’d never see again. When his pencil stopped, he looked up at me.
“I want to turn it off,” I said.
He narrowed his eyes. “Trust me, you wouldn’t prefer the silence. Silence feels like this.” Very deliberately, he turned the page on his legal pad and showed me the blank lines. To further his point he turned the volume switch on the radio until it clicked off. Suddenly, a dimension disappeared. The world lacked depth, the furniture before me lost solidity. Silence provided no meaning. Sound drove everything.
“But why Grand Funk Railroad?”
He looked away from me and crossed his legs as he sat back in his chair. After a few seconds, he shifted the position of the John Lennon figure slightly, so it was looking forward. “Why Grand Funk Railroad? I thought you would find it funny.”
He clicked on his radio and went back to his writing without waiting for a response. I had nothing to say. Only to hear, to hear like warmth or cold, to hear like being wet, to hear like pain. I could only hear on the inside. I turned away from the Beatles, all four of them looking dead and beyond me, and went for the cake knife and for silence, as the writer had expected.