Rhapsody in Transverse Vibration
Andrew Salzmann—Salt to his ever-diminishing circle of friends—clenches his teeth and blesses himself with his left hand because the right one's busy pounding the daylights out of a battered steel snare drum with a rhythm only he can distinguish from the roar of midday traffic and the jackhammer clatter of the subway below. Mistaking him for a junkie, passersby turn their eyes sideways out of courtesy or disgust while Salt ignores the occasional nickels and dimes that bounce at his feet. Fifty-two years old and built like a squirrel, Salt's not proud; he's playing. And while he plays, he mutters: Vibration is the repeated motion of a particle or system of particles. Sound is the byproduct of vibration. Vibrations disturb the air. This disturbance creates waves in which sound can travel. When a surface moves in one direction, air molecules rush in to fill the temporary void. When the surface returns to its original position, it condenses those molecules. This type of vibration is called a transverse vibration. When the resultant waves connect with the human ear, for example, or a microphone or the heavenly firmament above, we say that sound has occurred.
The words pass rapidly over Salt's lips like fragments of a novena, and he repeats them endlessly as if science alone were not enough to make them hold true. Two-handed, he breaks into a drum roll and reminds himself to breathe. There are more details he could recite if the spirit were to move him, equations he's worked out on lunch bags and napkins and long, billowing sheets of brown paper towel, but as noontime approaches, Salt's focus is on the sky, and he can't resist sharing his knowledge of the subject with the men and women who look right through him as if he's a ghost or merely a figment of their collective imagination: In ancient times, philosophers believed that the sky was a solid dome or a sphere rotating around the Earth. Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans all proffered variations on the same theme: an arched iron ceiling, a brass dome forged by the gods, a crystal vault, and, yes, even a drum. What they never thought about, what they never would have guessed in a million years, was the extent of damage their species would do to that same dome with their supersonic jets, chemical pollutants and skyscrapers.
"I'm not just talking about the ozone layer," he would tell his students first, then his wife, then his doctors, then his court-appointed counselors and social workers, then anyone who would listen. "I'm talking about the firmament. I'm talking about evil."
Early on, Salt could feel it in the air, massing like a storm front as the jagged edges of tall buildings and the rotors of helicopters and the tailfins of jetliners shredded the sky to ribbons. The universe was leaking in. Waves and radiation. Static and bad vibes. The music of the devil. The unrelenting siren song of chaos. Listening carefully, Salt could hear it infiltrating certain radio frequencies, at certain times of day. At noon the signal was particularly strong, and if they would only listen—his students, his wife, the doctors et al.—with a discerning ear, they'd get it. They'd understand what he was talking about and finally comprehend the gravity of the situation. But the advanced concepts Salt was working with, the mathematics, the physics of it all tended to overwhelm.
In the classroom Salt drew only blank stares as he tried to pose the problem—and the solution—in practical terms. The only way to quiet the chaos of the universe was through destructive interference, he explained, bits of chalk exploding as he scratched wild notes into the blackboard: like on an airplane. To cut down on engine noise, the pilot wears special headphones mounted with a microphone that picks up engine noise, and a processor in the headphones creates a wave that is the inverse of that very same noise. Played against each other, both waves cancel each other out, and the pilot hears nothing.
Or close to it.
There were diagrams and equations, but the prom was looming, and the kids had better things to worry about than inverse waves or whatever the hell old Salzmann was babbling about—again.
Yawning and slouching and rolling their eyes.
Flipping their cell phones and checking for messages.
Stinking like hairspray, cheap liquor and stale cigarette smoke.
"But the drum," Salt insisted as the bell rang for dismissal. "It's the key. Tuned properly, played correctly. I'm talking about destructive interference. And it won't take an army or even a marching band. A few well-placed drummers could keep the chaos to a minimum. A handful working around the clock could offer us complete protection."
Looking up, he realized he was speaking to an empty room. He realized his hands were shaking. He realized he was alone in his quest, and that suited him just fine.
If only he had a degree in physics, he used to think. If only he had some letters after his name to support his theories. If only he were anything other than a driving instructor.
But a driving instructor was all he was, and thus infinitely disposable.
First came the allegations, then came the questions. Rotund supervisors in thick glasses invited him into their offices, one after another, telling him to please sit down, asking him to please excuse the mess, sighing over teetering piles of manila folders and past-due paperwork, asking tentatively if Salt could explain his side of the story, hinting that if only he'd lie, if only he'd say the kids were mistaken, if only he'd promise never to discuss his theories in class, then this negligible misunderstanding might fall between the cracks.
But knowing what he knew, how could Salt agree to such conditions? This was the fate of the world he was talking about, the eternal struggle between good and evil. Any reasonable person would agree, he explained to his supervisors as they passed him on up through the chain of command, that such matters were of greater import than whether to down-shift on an incline or to illuminate one's headlights in foul weather.
His wife's name was Gloria, and she spoke frequently of money. There were bills, of course, and the mortgage to pay, and their daughter was barely halfway through college when Salt had had spoken to the last supervisor in the chain of command, and it was decided that an early retirement was in everyone's best interest—everyone, that is, except for Gloria, who stood in the kitchen with a knife in one hand and an onion in the other and demanded to know how she was supposed to pay for tuition and groceries and gas and electric with the money she made baking doughnuts and bagels three days a week at the local grocery store.
"We'll get by," Salt said, and to make her stop crying, he promised to start seeing his psychiatrist again.
Since the idea had taken root, however, he could think of nothing else, and its tendrils had reached into every corner of his mind to touch on everything he'd ever learned. Fairy tales and nursery rhymes, the minutia of world history, religious instruction from priests and nuns and women in slacks, and, of course, the sciences all converged upon one central fact: the sky, to put it bluntly, was falling, and the burden of stopping it fell squarely upon Salt's shoulders.
On the morning he was scheduled to see his psychiatrist, Salt got into his car and drove sixty miles past his destination so he could visit his daughter in school. Her name was Hannah, and she had her mother's toes. From Salt, on the other hand, she had inherited a round ugly nose, large front teeth and hairy arms, but she never once retreated from the skinny blonde girls who could afford rhinoplasty and sports cars and thus ruled her high school with a collective collagen pout. Now that she was in college and the rest were in beauty school or, at best, learning to drink beer straight from the keg in whatever institutions would take them, Hannah would at least be able to listen to Salt's theories with an open mind if not an entirely receptive one. In fact, it was her skepticism that Salt admired most in his daughter, and he knew that if he could convince her of the truth of his position, then he might have a chance at saving the world.
And if he couldn't convince her, Salt mused pragmatically as he crossed the campus beneath a canopy of gold and orange autumn leaves, then he'd just have to die trying. Consulting a neatly folded copy of the schedule Hannah had printed at her mother's request, Salt realized that he had nearly an hour to kill before his daughter got out of something called Performing Gender and so decided to visit the science center on the far side of campus. Here, he imagined as he walked through brightly lit corridors that emptied into massive lecture halls and laboratories humming with equipment he could only ever begin to understand, he might finally find the men and women of science who would not only understand the theories that had taken root in his head but also provide him with the hard data he needed to support his claims when he made his argument to Hannah. After all, if Salt could detect what he metaphorically thought of as the devil's voice using a simple radio, surely one of the machines in one of the labs in this massive brick structure could reproduce his results and prove him right once and for all.
And from there? Salt hated to give into delusions of grandeur, but as he knocked on a half-open office door in the center of a long hallway, he allowed himself to wonder if a Nobel Prize was completely out of the question.
"Come," a man's voice said, and when Salt did as he was told, he found himself in a room very much like those he'd passed through on his forced march to unemployment. The only difference was that the figure behind this particular desk looked less like a bloated frog than a wiry salamander with a crew cut, and before Salt could say anything, the man informed him that he'd already adopted a textbook for the coming semester.
"That's okay," Salt said. "I'm not selling textbooks. In fact, you might say I'm selling salvation."
Thrusting a hand forward, he introduced himself as a fellow educator and quickly sketched out his position: the sky—which had once afforded Earth a modicum of protection from what, for lack of a better term, might be considered bad vibrations—was beginning to fall apart, and the only way to offset its deterioration was to counter the bad vibrations with good ones.
The professor nodded once, which Salt took as a good sign and thus proceeded to elaborate. When he reached the part about the drum, the professor looked at his watch and confessed that while Salt's ideas were indeed fascinating, he was due in class and his students weren't likely to stand for tardiness.
"I understand completely," Salt said, reaching across the desk to shake the professor's hand a second time. "Serious minds. Do you think they'd be interested in my theories?"
"Let's put it this way," the professor said. "I have no doubt whatsoever that they'd prefer your theories to mine any day of the week. But, alas, I have a strict curriculum to consider."
"I see," Salt said. "But my argument—does it have merit?"
"Absolutely," the professor said, rising from his seat and gesturing toward the door.
"Thank you," Salt said. "That's all I needed to know."
On his way to the liberal arts building, Salt became increasingly aware of the security measures on campus. A small van with an amber light bar glided along the tarmac service route that connected all of the buildings, and a young guard with a blonde mustache asked Salt if he could be of assistance. To make the young man feel as if he were earning his pay, Salt asked where he might find the liberal arts center, and when the guard asked why he might be looking for that particular building, Salt mentioned Hannah.
"She's taking something called Performing Gender," Salt added. "Whatever that is."
The security guard chuckled at this and pointed Salt in the right direction. When Salt found the room where his daughter's class was scheduled to meet, he spotted another security guard and decided that although tuition was through the roof, it was worth every penny considering how committed the school was to keeping his little girl safe.
"We each do our part," he mused as the classroom emptied, and he looked for Hannah amid the crush of young faces.
"Dad?" Hannah said when she spotted him first.
"Banana!" Salt said before catching himself. "I'm sorry. Hannah."
Hannah looked at him with wide eyes and asked what he was doing so far from home. Before Salt could answer, however, the security guard was approaching and asking if everything was okay.
"Absolutely," Salt said. "But thanks for asking."
"I was talking to the girl."
"I guess it depends on how you define okay," Hannah muttered, but when the guard screwed his face into a scowl, she told him not to worry. "See this schnoz? The man's my father."
The pair walked across campus in silence. Students in sunglasses and hooded sweatshirts tossed balls back and forth across fields of green. Others sat on benches beneath shady trees—reading, gossiping, studying, breathing deep the last golden days of autumn before the season turned bitter and started looking toward winter. These young men and women, Salt decided, were creatures of instinct. They knew without knowing in so many words that their world was about to change, and so they made the best of each day, or at least enjoyed each day as well as they could, sensing that the warm glow of the sun would not last forever.
Except for his daughter.
Hannah, Salt realized, was very much like himself. She had a seriousness about her, and she walked with a sense of purpose as if each step might be her last.
In the student center, Hannah bought Salt a cup of coffee and led him to a private corner of the cafeteria where they sat at a table and their silence continued. Knowing he should say something but reluctant to spring his argument on her all at once, Salt asked how Hannah's classes were going and whether she was making any progress in her efforts at Performing Gender. When Hannah grinned at his question, Salt realized that it was the closest she'd come to a smile since she spotted him outside her classroom.
"That's just shorthand, dad. It's actually called Performing Gender in Victorian England."
"I see," Salt said, though he didn't.
"It's about how people have certain expectations of other people," Hannah explained. "And how everyone starts behaving one way because of those expectations even though we all want to behave another way."
"Is that a bad thing?" Salt asked, genuinely interested.
"There is no good or bad," Hannah said. "It's just a fact."
"But if you had your way?"
"We should be who we are," Hannah said.
"And we shouldn't be ashamed?"
"No," Hannah said. "Mom told you, didn't she?"
"Mom?" Salt said.
Apparently he and his daughter were using one set of words for two conversations, and he suddenly found himself lost in the wrong one. Unsure of what Hannah was talking about, he reached across the table and touched his daughter's hand. He'd love her regardless of anything, Salt said, and she told him that she hoped the baby would be a boy.
Speechless, Salt decided that now was not the time to burden his daughter with the news that an independent scientist had, only moments earlier, corroborated his theory about the falling sky. What mattered now was putting her at ease, and the last thing Hannah needed was to live with the knowledge that dark forces from deep in the heart of the universe were seeping into the atmosphere and threatening to tear the world apart. What she did need, on the other hand, was to feel safe and secure in the knowledge—faulty though it was—that bringing a child into this particular world at this particular point in time was a good idea. So he gave his daughter's fingers a squeeze and told her that everything would be fine.
She'd finish out the semester, he said.
She'd move back home and have her baby.
She'd go back to school and finish her degree.
She and the child would always be loved, would always be welcome, would always be safe. He'd see to it personally, Salt said, though he failed to mention that his own definitions of these terms might vary considerably from those of both his daughter and his wife.
As he drove home, Salt meditated upon the prospect of becoming a grandfather. The world was indeed a dangerous place and becoming more so with each passing day, but Salt had it in him to stem the tide until someone stronger, someone wiser, someone younger could take up the banner and carry on the good fight.
Perhaps a grandson?
The idea pleased him, and when he returned home, Salt admitted to Gloria that he hadn't seen his psychiatrist as he had promised but had visited Hannah instead.
"She told me," Salt added.
"And you without a job," Gloria said.
Salt kept to himself the fact that some things were more important than money and that a man of science had confirmed both his greatest fear and his greatest hope at once. The firmament above had indeed been breached, but a well-tuned drum could save the world. Which meant, Salt realized, that it was time to stop talking about the problem and start doing something about it. And so it was that he bought a second-hand snare and his first pair of drumsticks and set up shop on a street corner in the heart of the city. And though he rarely sees his grandson, Salt holds the child in his heart and ignores the pain that shoots through his wrists and his elbows as he beats on, a single drum against the torrent, content in the fact that the world is safer because he exists, because he knows what he knows, because he does what he does. It isn't the life he'd have chosen for himself, but it's the only one he can live with.
Marc Schuster is the author of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: The Discerning Fan's Guide to Doctor Who (McFarland 2007) and Don DeLillo, Jean Baudrillard, and the Consumer Conundrum (Cambria 2008). His first novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl will be available from PS Books in 2009. You can read more of his work at www.marcschuster.com.
copyright © 2008, Marc Schuster
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