Who doesn't remember changing their voice as a kid by talking into a fan? Or sneaking off with baloons at a party or dance to inhale the helium and try to talk like a character from a cartoon? One year for Halloween I got a cheap voice changer toy that had three settings and I remember playing with it for hours. But voice changers weren't always so cheap, and the original was room-sized instead of hand held. The initial reason behind its development had nothing to do with keeping kids amused and was not driven by aesthetic concerns. It was only after Ma Bell and the military had wrapped up their use for the Vocoder that it came to be appreciated for its musical qualities, first by experimental electronic musicians, and later pop, rock and rap artists. The next few editions of the Music of Radio series delves into the story of electronic speech synthesis, from the Vocoder, to the Voder and on to the first text-to-speech computer programs written for gargantuan mainframes. It takes us deep into the stacks of the Bell Laboratory Archives and into the belly of WWII crypto communications before emerging in the 1960's and '70's when the stage was set for mind melting explorations in sonic psychedelia. Just as the Vocoder is still be used for artistic effects the original ideas behind it, compression and bandwidth reduction, continue to be used in new hardware and software applications for radio and telecommunications.
Homer Dudley, the inventor of the Vocoder, was an electronic and acoustic engineer whose primary area of focus revolved around the idea that human speech is fundamentally a form of radio communication. In his white-paper The Carrier Nature of Speech he wrote that "speech is like a radio wave in that information is transmitted over a suitably chosen carrier." This realization came to Dudley in October of 1928 when he was otherwise out of commission in a Manhattan hospital bed. Discoveries are often made from playfully messing around with things, either in horseplay or boredom, and Dudley was keeping himself entertained just as a kid might by making weird sounds with his voice through changing the shape of his mouth. He had the insight that his vocal cords were acting as a transmitter of a periodic waveform. The nose and throat were the resonating filters while the mouth and tongue produced harmonic content, or formants to use linguistic lingo. He also observed that the frequencies of his voice vibrated at a faster rate than the mouth itself moved.
These insights went on to have implications for the work he pursued at Bell Laboratories, a true idea factory, where money and resources were thrown at any old project that might bear the AT&T monopoly some form of fruit or further advantage in their already sprawling playground of wires and exchanges. Once recovered and back at work Homer thought his discovery might have an application in the area of compression and he made it his ambition to free up some of the phone companies precious bandwidth hoping to pack in more conversations onto the copper lines. He was given a corner and allowed to go work in it, devoting himself to his obsession.
He exploited his research in the invention of the Vocoder, or VOice CODER, first demonstrated at Harvard in 1936. It works by measuring how the spectral characteristics of speech change over time. The signal going into the mic is divided by filters into a number of frequency bands. The signal present at each frequency gives a representation of the spectral energy. This allows the Vocoder to reduce the information needed to store speech to a series of numbers. On the output end to a speaker or headphone the Vocoder reverses the process to synthesize speech electronically. Information about the instantaneous frequency of the original voice signal is discarded by the filters giving the end result it unique robotic and dehumanized characteristics. The amplitude of the modulator for each of the individual analysis bands generates a voltage that controls the amplifiers in each corresponding carrier band. The frequency components of the modulated signal are mapped onto the carrier signal as discrete amplitude changes in each of the frequency bands. Because the Vocoder does not employ a point-by-point recreation of the wave, the bandwidth used for transmission can be significantly reduced.
There is usually an unvoiced band or sibilance channel on a Vocoder for frequencies outside the analysis bands for typical talking, but still important in speech. These are words starting with the letters s, f, ch or other sibilant sounds. These are mixed with the carrier output for increased clarity, resulting in recognizable speech but still roboticized. Some Vocoders have a second system for generating unvoiced sounds, using a noise generator instead of the fundamental frequency.
To better demonstrate the speech synthesis ability of the decoder part of his invention Dudley created another instrument, the Voder (Voice Operating Demonstrator). This was unveiled during the World Fair in New York in 1939 where Ray Bradbury was among the attendees who witnessed it firsthand. The Voder synthesized speech by creating the electronic equivalent of a vocal tract. Oscillators and noise generators provided a source of pitched tone and hiss. A 10-band resonator filter controlled by a keyboard converted the tone and hiss into vowels, consonants and inflections. Another set of extra keys allowed the operator to make the plosive sounds such as "p" and "d" as well as affrictive sounds of "j" in "jaw" and "ch" in "cheese". Only after months of practice with this difficult machine could a trained operator produce something recognizable as speech.
At the world fair Mrs. Helen Harper, who was noted for her skill, led a group of twenty operators in demonstrations of the Voder where people from the crowd could come up and ask the operator to make the Voder say something.
Homer Dudley had great success in his aim of reducing bandwidth with the Vocoder. It could chop up voice frequencies into ten bands at 300 hertz, a significant reduction of what was required for a phone call back in the day. Yet it never got used for that purpose. The large size of the equipment was impractical to install in homes and offices across the country even if it created more channels on the phone lines. For a time Dudley worked at marketing the Vocoder to Hollywood for use in audio special effects. It never made much of an impact there as other voice changing devices such as the Sonovox started being used in radio jingles and in cartoons. Before it could be discovered by musicians Homer Dudley's tool for voice compression had to eb put into service during America's efforts in WWII where it was used as part of the SIGSALY encryption program. The details surrounding the coding of the voices of MacArthur and Churchill will be explored in next months column.
How to Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder from WWII to Hip-hop: The Machine Speaks by Dave Tompkins, Melville House, 2010
The Carrier Nature of Speech by Homer Dudley, The Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 19, No. 4, October 1940
Fundamentals of Speech Synthesis by Homer Dudley, Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, Vol. 3, No. 4, October 1955
Lev Theremin's skill at invention was not lost on the Soviet machine. Not long after his musical instrument was patented, the radio watchman security device it was based on started being employed to guard the treasures of gold and silver Lenin had plundered from church and clergy. The watchman was also being used to protect the state bank. Setting up and installing these early electronic traps took him away from his primary interest in scientific research. Just as he was approaching the limits of his frustration his mentor at the Institute gave him a new problem to solve, that of "distance vision" or the transmission and reception of moving images over the airwaves. The embryonic idea for television was in the air at the time but no one had figured out how to make it a reality. The race was on and the Soviets wanted to be first to crack the puzzle.
Having researched the issue extensively in the published literature, Lev was ready to apply the powers of his mind towards a solution. In the Soviet Union parts weren't always readily available. Some were smuggled in, and others had to be scavenged from flea markets -the latter a process very familiar to radio junkies. By 1925 he had created a prototype from his junk box using a rotating disk with mirrors that directed light onto a photo cell. The received image had a resolution of sixteen lines, and it was possible to make out the shape of an object or person but not the identifiable details. Other inventors in Russia and abroad were also tackling the issue. Fine tuning the instrument over the next year he doubled the resolution to 32 lines and then, using interlaced scanning, to 64. Having created a rudimentary "Mechanism of Electric Distance Vision" he demonstrated the device and defended his thesis before students and faculty from the physics department at the Polytechnic Institute. Theremin had built the first functional television in Russia.
After this period Lev embarked to Europe and then America where he lived for just over a decade engaging the public, generating interest in his musical instrument, and doing work with RCA. As Hitler gathered power he was anxious about the encroaching war and returned home to the Soviet Union in 1938. He barely had time to settle back in when he was sent to the Kolmya gold mines for enforced labor for the better part of a year. This was done as a way of breaking him, a fear tactic that could be held over his head if he didn't cooperate: do what we say or go back to the mines. The state had better uses for him. He was picked up by the police overlord Lavrenti Beria who sent him to work in a secret laboratory that was part of the Gulag camp system. One of his first jobs was to build a radio beacon whose signals would help track down missing submarines, aircraft and smuggled cargo.
With WWII winding to a close the Cold War was dawning and Russia was on the offensive, trying to extend its reach and gather intelligence on such lighthearted subjects as the building of atomic bombs. In their efforts at organized espionage the Soviets sifted for all the data they could get from foreign consulates. Having succeeded with his beacon Lev was given another assignment. This time the goal wasn't to track down cargo or vehicles but to intercept U.S. secrets from inside Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. Ambassador. Failure to do the bidding of his boss would mean a return to the mines. His boss had high demands for the specifications of the bug Lev was to plant. The proposed system could have no microphones and no wires and was to be encased in something that didn't draw attention to itself.
The bug ended up being put inside a wooden carving of the Great Seal of the United States and was delivered by a delegation of Soviet Pioneers (their version of Boy Scouts) on July 4, 1945. Deep inside this "gesture of friendship" was a miniature metal cylinder with a nine inch antenna tail. The device was passive and was not detected by the X-Rays used at Spaso house in their routine scans. It only activated when a microwave beam of 330 Mhz was directed at the seal from a nearby building. There was a metal plate inside the cylinder that when hit with the beam resonated as a tuned circuit. Below the beak of the eagle the wood was thin enough to act as a diaphragm and the vibrations from it caused fluctuations in the capacitance between the plate and the diaphragm creating a microphone. The modulations this produced were picked up by the antenna and then transmitted out to the receiver at a Soviet listening post. Using this judiciously the Soviets were able to gain intelligence to aid them in a number of strategic decisions. The Great Seal bug is considered to be a grandfather to RFID technology.
This wasn't the last time Lev was asked to develop wireless eavesdropping technology. For the next job his overseers upped the ante on him. No device could be planted in the site targeted for surveillance. The operation was code named Snowstorm. Lev used his interest in optics to figure out a method. Knowing that window panes in a room vibrate slightly when people talked he needed a method to detect and read the vibrations from a distance. Resonating glass contains many simultaneous harmonics and it would be a difficult to find the place of least distortion to get a voice signal from. Then there was the obstacle of reinterpreting the signal back into a speech pattern. Using an infrared beam focused on the optimum spot and catching its reflection back in an interferometer with a photo element he was able to pick up communications. Back at his monitoring post he used his equipment and skills to reduce the large amounts of noise from the signal.
A few years later Lev was released from his duties at the lab, but was kept on a tight leash and not allowed to leave Moscow.
HOW TO BUILD A THEREMIN FROM THREE AM RADIOS
For those amateurs wishing to build and play a theremin there are many commercial kits available on the market. However a simple theremin can be built using just three AM radios. If you don't already have these laying around the house they can easily be obtained from your local thrift store.
One of the radios will be a fixed transmitter, another a variable transmitter and the third would be the receiver. The volume knobs on the fixed and variable transmitters can be turned all the way down, as they are just used to produce the intermediate frequency oscillations that will be picked up by the receiver. The receiver radio should be set on an unused frequency in the upper range of the AM band such as 1500 Khz. If it is in use tune to a nearby space where only static is heard. The fixed and variable transmitters should then be tuned 455 Khz below where your receiver is set, in this example 1045 Khz. 455 Khz is a common difference in the local oscillator frequency, although there can be variations. As these frequencies are set the receiver should start to make a whistling type sound, the production of a beat frequency.
The next step is to open up the variable radio and look for the variable capacitor, often housed in white plastic with four screws. Find the terminal that takes the station out of tune and use an aligator clip attached to the antenna, or solder a wire from the antenna to the oscillator terminal. Now the controls will have to be adjusted slightly again. Tune the fixed transmitter until the receiver starts whistling and have fun playing with the sounds it creates.
Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage by Albert Glinsky, University of Illinois Press, 2000
How to Make a Basic Theremin by eltunene: https://app.box.com/s/kgdstzwaoc/1/17284427/181802859/1
The sound of the theremin has become synonymous with the spectral and spooky sci-fi horror flicks of the 1940's and '50's. It's trilling oscillations conjure up images of flying saucers made from hub caps and fishing line. When most folks hear and see the theremin they tend to think of it as little more than a novelty or scientific amusement. While it may have fallen out favor in horror movie soundtracks it has remained a mainstay within the field of electronic music. It is distinguished among all musical instruments by being the only one that is played without touching the instrument itself. To the radio and electronics buff the theremin is worth exploring as a way of learning about electromagnetic fields and the creative use of the heterodyning effect for artistic purposes. Whether or not the quivering sounds the instrument pulls out of the ether are appealing to a listener is a matter of individual preference.
The inventor of the theremin, or etherphone as it was first dubbed, was Lev Teremen. He was born in Russia in 1896 a few years before Marconi achieved wireless telegraphy. As a young boy he spent his time reading the family encyclopedia and was fascinated by physics and electricity. At five he had started playing piano, and by nine had taken up the cello, an instrument that has an important influence on the way theremins are played. After showing promise in class he was asked to do independent research with electricity at the school physics lab. There he began an earnest study of high-frequency currents and magnetic fields, alongside optics and astronomy. It was around this time Lev met Abram Ioffe, a rising physicist whom he would work under in a variety of capacities. Yet his studies in atomic theory and music were overshadowed by the outbreak of WWI. In 1916 he was summoned by the draft and moved to Petrograd where his electrical experience saved him from the front lines. He was placed in a military engineering school where he landed in the Radio Technical Department to do work on transmitters and oversee the construction of a powerful and strategic radio station. In the course of the war the station had to be disassembled and Lev oversaw the blowing up of a 120 meter antenna mast. Another war time duty was as a teacher instructing other students to become radio specialists.
As Lev's reputation grew among engineers and academic scientists he was eventually asked to go and work with Ioffe Abram at the Physico-Technical Institute where he became the supervisor of a high-frequency oscillations laboratory. Lev's first assignment was to study the crystal structure of various objects using X-Rays. At this time he was also experimenting with hypnosis and Ioffe suggested he take his findings on trance-induced subjects to psychologist Ivan Pavlov. Though Lev resented radio work in preference for his love of exploration of atomic structures, Ioffe pushed him to work more systematically with radio technology. Now in the early 1920's Lev busied himself thinking of novel uses for the audion tube.
His first project involved the exploration of the human body's natural electrical capacitance to set up a simple burglar alarm circuit that he called the "radio watchman". The device was made by using an audion as a transmitter at a specific high frequency directed to an antenna. This antenna only radiated a small field of about sixteen feet. The circuits were calibrated so that when a person walked into the radiation pattern it would change the capacitance, cause a contact switch to close, and set off an audible signal. He was next asked to create a tool for measuring the dielectric constant of gases in a variety of conditions. For this he made a circuit and placed a gas between two plates of a capacitor. Changes in temperature were measured by a needle on a meter. This device was so sensitive it could be set off by the slightest movement of the hand. This device was refined by adding an audion oscillator and tuned circuit. The harmonics generated by the oscillator were filtered out to leave a single frequency that could be listened to on headphones.
As Lev played with this tool he noticed again how the presence of his movements near the circuitry were registered as variations in the density of the gas, and now measured by a change in the pitch. Closer to the capacitor the pitch became higher, while further away it became lower. Shaking his hand created vibrato. His musical self, long dormant under the influence of communism, came alive and he started to use this instrument to tease out the fragments he loved from his classical repertoire. Word quickly traveled around the institute that Theremin was playing music on a voltmeter. Ioffe encouraged Lev to refine what he had discovered -the capacitance of the body interacting with a circuit to change its frequency- into an instrument. To increase the range and have greater control of the pitch he employed the heterodyning principle. He used two high-frequency oscillators to generate the same note in the range of 300 khz :-beyond human hearing. One frequency was fixed, the other variable and could move out of sync with the first. He attached the variable circuit to a vertical antenna on the right hand side of the instrument. This served as one plate of the capacitor while the human hand formed another. The capacitance rose or fell depending on where the hand was in relation to the antenna. The two frequencies were then mixed into a beat frequency within audible range. To play a song the hand is moved at various distances from the antenna creating a series beat frequency notes.
To refine his etherphone further he designed a horizontal loop antenna that came out of the box at a right angle. Connected to carefully adjusted amplifier tubes and circuits this antenna was used by the other hand to control volume. The new born instrument had a range of four octaves and was played in a similar manner to the cello, as far as the motions of the two hands were concerned. After playing the instrument for his mentor, he performed a concert in November of 1920 to an audience of spellbound physics students. In 1921 he filed for a Russian patent on the device.
Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage by Albert Glinsky, 2000, University of Illinois
No man works in a vacuum. Before the industry of radio got off the ground it had been customary for researchers to use each-others discoveries with complete abandon. As technical progress in the field of wireless communication moved from the domain of scientific exploration to commercial development financial assets came to be at stake and rival inventors soon got involved in one of the great American pastimes: lawsuits. The self-styled "Father of Radio" Lee De Forest was involved in a number of infringement controversies. The most famous of these involved his invention of the audion (from audio and ionize) an electronic amplifying vacuum tube.
It was Edison who first produced the ancestor of what became the audion. While working on the electric light bulb he noticed that one side of the carbon filament behaved in a way that caused the blackening of the glass. Working on this problem he inserted a small electrode and was able to demonstrate that it would only operate when connected to the positive side of a battery. Edison had formed a one way valve. This electrical phenomenon made quite the impression on another experimenter, Dr. J. Ambrose Fleming, who brought the device back to life twenty years later when he realized it could be used as a radio wave detector.
At the time Fleming was working for Marconi as one of his advisers. It occurred to him that "if the plate of the Edison effect bulb were connected with the antenna, and the filament to the ground, and a telephone placed in the circuit, the frequencies would be so reduced that the receiver might register audibly the effect of the waves." Fleming made these adjustments. He also substituted a metal cylinder for Edison's flat plate. The sensitivity of the device was improved by increasing electronic emissions. This great idea in wireless communication was called the Fleming valve.
Fleming had patented this two-electrode tube in England in 1904 before giving the rights to the Marconi Company who took out American patents in 1905. Meanwhile Lee De Forest had read a report from a meeting of the Royal Society where Fleming had lectured on the operation of his detector. De Forest immediately began experimentation with the apparatus on his own and found himself dissatisfied. Between the cathode and anode he added a third element made up of a platinum grid that received current coming in from the antenna. This addition proved to transform the field of radio, setting powerful forces of electricity, as well as litigation, into motion.
The audion increased amplification on the receiving side but radio enthusiasts were doubtful about the ability of the triode tube to be used with success as a transmitter. De Forest had been set upon by financial troubles involving various scandals in the wireless world and was persuaded to sell his audion patent in 1913.
Edwin Howard Armstrong had been fascinated by radio since his boyhood and was an amateur by age fifteen when he began his career. Some of his experimentation was with the early audions that were not perfect vacuums (De Forest had mistakenly thought a little bit of gas left inside was beneficial to receiving). Armstrong took a close interest in how the audion worked and developed a keen scientific understanding of its principles and operation. By the time he was a young man at Columbia University in 1914, working alongside Professor Morecroft he used an oscillograph to make comprehensive studies based on his fresh and original ideas. In doing so he discovered the regenerative feedback principle that was yet another revolution for the wireless industry. Armstrong revealed that when feedback was increased beyond a certain point a vacuum tube would go into oscillation and could be used as a continuous-wave transmitter. Armstrong received a patent for the regenerative circuit.
De Forest in turn claimed he had already come up with the regenerative principle in his own lab, and so the lawsuits began, and continued for twenty years with victories that alternated as fast as electric current. Finally in 1934 the Supreme Court decided De Forest had the right in the matter. Armstrong however would achieve lasting fame for his superheterodyne receiver invented in 1918.
Around 1915 De Forest used heterodyning to create an instrument out of his triode valve, the Audion Piano. This was to be the first musical instrument created with vacuum tubes. Nearly all electronic instruments after if it were based on its general schematic up until the invention of the transistor.
The instrument consisted of a single keyboard manual and used one triode valve per octave. The set of keys allowed one monophonic note to be played per octave. Out of this limited palette it created variety by processing the audio signal through a series of resistors and capacitors to vary the timbre. The Audion Piano is also notable for its spatial effects, prefiguring the role electronics would play in the spatial movement of sound. The output could be sent to a number of speakers placed around the room to create an enveloping ambiance. De Forest later planned to build an improved version with separate tubes for each key giving it full polyphony, but it is not known if it was ever created.
In his grandiose autobiography De Forest described his instrument as making "sounds resembling a violin, cello, woodwind, muted brass and other sounds resembling nothing ever heard from an orchestra or by the human ear up to that time – of the sort now often heard in nerve racking maniacal cacophonies of a lunatic swing band. Such tones led me to dub my new instrument the ‘Squawk-a-phone’….The Pitch of the notes is very easily regulated by changing the capacity or the inductance in the circuits, which can be easily effected by a sliding contact or simply by turning the knob of a condenser. In fact, the pitch of the notes can be changed by merely putting the finger on certain parts of the circuit. In this way very weird and beautiful effects can easily be obtained.”
In 1915 an Audion Piano concert was held for the National Electric Light Association. A reporter wrote the following: “Not only does De Forest detect with the Audion musical sounds silently sent by wireless from great distances, but he creates the music of a flute, a violin or the singing of a bird by pressing a button. The tone quality and the intensity are regulated by the resistors and by induction coils…You have doubtless heard the peculiar, plaintive notes of the Hawaiian ukulele, produced by the players sliding their fingers along the strings after they have been put in vibration. Now, this same effect, which can be weirdly pleasing when skilfully made, can he obtained with the musical Audion.”
Fast forward to 1960. The Russian immigrant and composer Vladimir Ussachevsky is doing deep work in the trenches of the cutting edge facilities at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, one of the first electronic music studios anywhere. Its flagship piece of equipment was the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, banks of reel-to-reels and customized equipment. Ussachevsky received a commission from a group of amateur radio enthusiasts, the De Forest Pioneers, to create a piece in tribute to their namesake. In the studio Vladimir composed something evocative of the early days of radio and titled it "Wireless Fantasy". He recorded morse code signals tapped out by early radio guru Ed G. Raser on an old spark generator in the W2ZL Historical Wireless Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. Among the signals used were: QST; DF the station ID of Manhattan Beach Radio, a well known early broadcaster with a range from Nova Scotia to the Caribbean; WA NY for the Waldorf-Astoria station that started transmitting in 1910; and DOC DF, De Forests own code nickname. The piece ends suitably with AR, for end of message, and GN for good night. Woven into the various wireless sounds used in this piece are strains of Wagner's Parsifal, treated with the studio equipment to sound as if it were a short wave transmission. Lee De Forest had played a recording of Parsifal, then heard for the first time outside of Germany, in his first musical broadcast.
It is also available on the CD: Vladimir Ussachevsky, Electronic and Acoustic Works 1957-1972 New World Records
History of Radio to 1926 by Gleason L. Archer, The American Historical Society, 1938
The Father of Radio by Lee De Forest
The Music of Radio is a history series showcasing the relationships between radio and electronic music. This episode tunes in to sounds created by the sparks of a "wireless organ" designed by the Canadian amateur, early broadcaster and reverend Georges Désilets.
Georges was born to farming parents in 1866 in Nicolet, Quebec. As a young adult he joined the seminary. By the age of 27 in July of 1893 he was ordained into the ministry. As part of the work of his spiritual vocation he began to teach astronomy, chemistry and physics at the seminary. Later he focused his instructional efforts on music and natural history. Around this time it was very common for those in the clergy to be involved in scientific and technological pursuits as hobbyists. Supported by a church or parish these men were often set up in well appointed homes, had access to books, and the prime resource of any hobbyist: free time to tinker.
Somewhere around the year 1908 he became the Bishop of Nicolet. At this time Georges became active in working with a library, as well as monitoring installations of electrical apparatus and photography works. During this time period his keen and active mind turned to the field of radio-telegraphy. His amateur radio laboratory was assembled in the turret of the Bishopric. What ham wouldn't like to have a shack in a turret with an antenna on top?
From the turret he created the 9-AB broadcast radio station that transmitted an hour long orchestral and religious music program performed by musicians from the seminary once a week. Désilets was in need of an organ to accompany the choir and he began experimenting with the use of electronic sparks to create musical tones. This experimenting led to his invention of the Wireless Organ, and later a number of other patents in the field of radio communications. In doing so he joined the ranks of other reverends who had made contributions to science and the humanities including Rev. Edmund Cartwright, inventor of the power loom; Rev. George Garrett creator of the submarine; and Rev. John Michell who helped to discover the planet Uranus, among many others.
After the outbreak of WWI all non-government stations were closed down in Canada and his organ and station fell into the dread state of radio silence. Yet he continued to be active in the radio community, penning articles, and now doubt working in his radio lab. In the September 1916 issue of Wireless Age he wrote of his instrument:
“Those who have heard it agree that it is real music. Chords are produced by pressing two or three keys, and if the feeding transformer can supply the necessary power we have surprising results and pleasant effects. ... Unhappily my station was closed last year on account of the war, and my organ is now silent. I hope to resume my experiments later on; meanwhile, I wish I could, for a time, live on the free soil of the United States, paradise of the wireless amateur."
His set up used the standard pre-tube method of a spark-gap alternator and a number of studded 'spark-gap' disks attached to a rotating cone drum. The ratio interval between studs caused waveforms to be created in a series of prefixed pitches and was only able to be heard over wireless transmission, as there were still no instruments of amplification yet available. The first version only had a range of 1 1/2 octaves. After the war he lost no time in getting back on the air and continued his work, attaching a keyboard from an organ and a larger spark-drum that gave him a four octave range. He got the idea to use a rheostat attached to a footswitch for controlling volume and expression. In his improved device he also fitted a home-brewed oscillation transformer capable of delivering "10,000 volts at an imprest potential of 110 volts, 30 cycles A.C."
Georges story shows how curiosity, coupled with need, determination, the will to tinker and a bit of free time can unleash creative potentials. While the spurious emissions caused by spark-gaps may be frowned upon for the 21st century amateur it need not stop us from sitting at the workbench, the mixing board of a music studio, or at the controls of a transceiver where imaginative sparks are allowed to fly and signals of inspiration can be received.
Wireless Age, September 1916
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2012, Random House
The Music of Radio is a history series showcasing the relationships between radio and electronic music. This installment focuses on sounds created by arcs in the days before incandescent lighting cast its long and overshadowing glow.
The first source of electrical lighting was the arc lamp. It was also used as a means for producing an electrical form of singing. Invented by Humphrey Davy in the first decade of the 19th century the arc lamp created light from the electricity passing between two carbon electrodes in free air. To ignite a carbon lamp the rods were touched together allowing a low voltage to strike the arc. They were then drawn apart to allow the electric current to flow between the gap. This first means of electrical lighting also became the first commercial use for electricity beginning around 1850 but it didn't really take off until the 1870's when regular supplies of power became available.
Three major advances in the technology occurred during the 1880's that helped to spread the adoption of the arc lamp. The first was a mechanism to automatically adjust the electrodes. The second was the placement of the arcs in an enclosure to cause the carbon to burn at a slower rate. Last salts and tiny amounts of metals were added to the carbon to create flames of greater intensity and different colors. At this time a number of companies became involved with the manufacturing of these lamps and they began to be used for lighting on streets and other public places. Yet there was one feature about the light source that many folks found disagreeable. These were audible power-frequency harmonics caused by the arcs negative resistance. Nikola Tesla was one of the guys who set to work on this problem of noise. In 1891 he received a patent for an alternator that ran at 10,000 cycle per second that was to be used to suppress the undesirable sounds of humming, hissing and howling emitted by the lamp.
Tesla's invention must have been impractical or just never caught because over in London in 1899 the Victorian electrical engineer William Duddell had been appointed to tackle the problem of the lamps dissonant electrical noise. Duddell was an illuminated man and he took a different angle than Nikola. Instead of suppressing the sounds he transformed them into music. In the course of his experimentation Duddell found that by varying the voltage supplied to the lamps he could control the audible frequencies by connecting a tuned circuit that consisted of an inductor and capacitor across the arc. The negative resistance of the arc was excited by the audio frequency oscillations from the tuned circuit at its resonant frequency. This could be heard as a musical tone. Duddell used another one of his inventions, the oscillograph, to analyze the particular conditions necessary for producing the oscillations. He demonstrated his invention before the London Institution of Electrical Engineers by wiring up a keyboard to make different tones from the arc. Being a patriotic fellow he played a rendition of God Save the Queen. His device came to be known as "Singing Arc" and was one of the first electronic oscillators. It was noted that arc lamps on the same circuit in other buildings could also be made to sing. The engineers speculated that music could be delivered over the lighting network, but this never became a reality. Duddell toured his instrument around Britain for a time but his invention was never capitalized on and so remained only a novelty.
Duddell's Singing Arc had been very close to becoming a radio. Marconi's spark-gap transmitter had already been demonstrated in 1895, yet Duddell thought it was impossible to leverage his Singing Arc to produce radio frequencies instead of audio frequencies. The AC current in the condenser was smaller than the supplied DC current so the arc never extinguished during an output cycle, making it impractical to use as an RF transmitter. With this set up it was not possible to reach the high frequencies required for transmission of Radio-telegraphy. If he had managed to increase the frequency range and attached an antenna his invention could have become a CW transmitter.
His oscillator was left for other experimenters to imrpove upon. This was done by Danish physicists Valdemar Poulsen and P.O. Pederson. In 1903 they patented the Poulsen arc wireless transmitter that was the first generate to continuous waves, and one of the first pieces of technology to transmit through amplitude modulation. Poulsen's version was used for radio work around the world up into the 1920's when it became replaced by vacuum tube transmitters.
Poulsen had previously demonstrated his inventive flair with the world's first magnetic recording device, the Telegraphone, at the Paris World Fair in 1900. Applying his skills he was able to raise the efficiency and frequency of Duddell's Singing Arc up to 200 kilohertz. His method of oscillation made use of an AC current from the condenser that was large enough to extinguish the arc but not so great that it caused the arc to restart in the opposite direction. A third method of oscillation was used in spark gap transmitters where the arc is extinguished but might reignite when the condenser reversed, producing damp oscillations.
The method of operating a Poulsen arc transmitter required frequency shift keying. On-off keying could not be used because of the time it took for the arc to strike and re-stabilize. With the arc staying on throughout operation the keying frequency needed to be adjusted anywhere from one to five percent. The signal at the unwanted frequency was deemed a compensation wave. Two keys were used, a "mark" or closed key, and a "space" or open key. This mode took up quite a chunk of bandwidth, as it also transmitted on the harmonics of the frequencies. Since around 1921 the use of the compensation wave method for CW has been prohibited. One way of working around this used a dummy antenna, or back shunt, tuned to the same frequency as the transmitter to absorb the load from the arc while keeping it running.
For those interested in creating a lethal high-voltage Plasma Arc Speaker based on Duddell's Singing Arc John Iovine has written an article on how to do just that for Make Magazine. The core of his project is a 555 timer and an insulated gate bi-polar transistor. Schematics, instructions and a video of it in operation are available at:
Today those of us with access to cell phones and data plans tend to take things like streaming music, news, on-demand videos and face time for granted. Yet the impulse to do more than just talk over the wires has been part of the spirit of telephony since its earliest days. In the 1890's the telephonic playground was still in its infancy and commercial applications for the technology could have gone in many different directions. During this time entrepreneurial types were coming up with creative experiments for using telephones as a news delivery system or for musical entertainment.
Two years after Elisha Gray's playing of the musical telegraph in 1874, other folks decided it would be a swell idea to transmit music concerts along the commercial telegraph lines. This was done initially for the entertainment of the operators. In 1881 the first "stereo" concert was given via telephone. Clément Ader used dual lines to pass music from a local theater to two separate phone receivers. At the time this was dubbed "binauriclar auduition" a name that for some reason didn't stick. Later in 1890 AT&T was at work on a service to provide music for mealtimes. Though there were some issues with sound quality they stated that "When we have overcome this difficulty we shall be prepared to furnish music on tap." AT&T also had other development plans for the phone lines. Used for business during the day they hoped to "stream" music, lectures, and various oral entertainments to all the cities of the East coast at night.
Stateside most of these types of efforts didn't take hold but a few in Europe did. The first permanent service was an outgrowth of Clement Ader's work, known as the Paris Theatrophone. This was a subscription based service launched in the 1890's. The "Theatraphonic network" provided Parisians with "programs dramatic and lyrical" and held its own until 1932. In Hungary the concept of a telephone newspaper caught on, with the Budapest Telefon Hirmondo, which began service in February of 1893. It included news reports, original fiction, and other entertainments. Still going strong in 1925 it added a radio station while still offering a telephone relay to customers all the way up to 1944.
It was within this milieu that Thaddeus Cahill obsessed over and created what must be considered the ultimate behemoth of a musical synthesizer, the Telharmonium, a type of electrical organ. It was specifically intended to be played over the phone lines. Amplifiers hadn't been invented yet and the phone receiver was still the only available technology that could make an electronic sound audible. The Telharmonium implemented sinuosoidal additive synthesis via mechanical means using tonewheels and alternators rather than an oscillating circuit. The discs on a tonewheel have specific numbers of bumps on the edge. These generate a specific frequency through induction as the bumps move past an electromagnetic coil. Frequency and waveform are determined by the shape of the wheel, the number of bumps on it and how often they pass the tip of the magnet. Using multiple tonewheels a single fundamental frequency can thus be combined with one or more harmonics to produce complex sounds. Later the tonewheel was used in radio work during the pre-vacuum tube era as a BFO for CW.
Cahill is credited with coining the phrase "synthesizer" for describing his instrument. It was patented in 1897. Five years later he founded the New England Electric Music Company with two partners. The Telharmonium or Dynamaphone as it was also called was first demonstrated in 1906. The instrument was a true boat anchor. The Mark I version weighed in at a hefty 7 tons and could be considered light compared to the Mark II and III which weighed around 200 tons, and took up thirty train box cars when shipped to New York for assembly in what Cahill called his "Music Plant". The instrument looked like a power generator and took up an entire floor on 39th street and Broadway in New York city. Indeed the machine itself put out 670-kilowatts of power. Each generator rotor produced a pitch and a 60-foot chassis held 145 rotors.
One floor up was Telharmonic Hall, a concert space where the instrument was controlled and played. Two to four musicians could sit at the controls to play the Telharmonium from the listening hall. It was a unique arrangement of four keyboard banks each with 84 keys. Before the minimalist composers La Monte Young and Terry Riley brought just intonation back into the fold of Western music, it was possible to play the Telharmonium using just intonation. Just intonation differs from equal temperament in that it occurs naturally as a series of overtones where all the notes in a scale are related by rational numbers. In just intonation the tuning depends on the scale you are using. Equal temperament was developed for keyboard instruments so that they could be played in any scale or key. The Telharmonium through additive synthesis, and the ability to control timbre, harmonics, and volume was an extremely flexible instrument.
Though there was no channel separation the Telharmonic hall was fitted with eight telephone receivers augmented with paper horns. These were arrayed behind ferns, columns and furniture. An electrician at the company suggested splicing the current from the Telharmonium into the arc lamps hanging from the ceiling which then resonated at the same frequency as that being played to create “singing arc.” The Telharmonium could also be piped to any number connected to the AT&T phone system.
Thomas Commerford Martin wrote of the new sounds of the Telharmonium as an alliance of electricity with music. Cahill "has devised a mechanism which throws on the circuits, manipulated by the performer at the central keyboard, the electrical current waves that, received by the telephone diaphragm at any one of ten thousand subscribers' stations, produce musical sounds of unprecedented clearness, sweetness, and purity."
Cahill had ambitious plans for his "Telharmony". He advocated that a form of "electric sleep-music" could be tapped at any time for the cure of modern nervous disorders. The electric drones could also be used to relieve boredom in the workplace. But his plans were not to bear fruit in the manner he thought. His instrument sometimes caused interference or crosstalk on the phone lines, electronic music interrupting business and domestic conversation. It also required vast amounts of power. When vacuum tubes started to appear and in the 1920's other less expensive electronic instruments, that did not require the infrastructure provided by Ma Bell, started being built. Finally with the advent of broadcast radio many of these types of ventures ceased to be profitable. No known recordings of the Telharmonium exist.
In the 1930's Hammond patented the electrically amplified organ which was essentially a smaller and more economical version of the Telharmonium. This was much to the chagrin of Cahill's family as the patent on his instrument had not yet run out. Synth pioneer Robert Moog later recognized the genius of Cahill's work and his seminal place in the history of electronic music.
In William Peck Banning's 1946 book, Commercial Broadcasting Pioneer: The WEAF Experiment 1922-1926, he wrote that "historians of the future may conclude that if there was any 'father' of broadcasting, perhaps it was the telephone itself".
The history of electronic music is intimately tied up with the history of radio and telecommunications. Many of the same breakthroughs and devices invented by electrical engineers for communicating in morse code, telephone and radio were adapted for use by musicians. Electricity opened up new worlds of sound beginning in the 19th century. This series on the music of radio will explore the ways telegraphy, telephony and radio have impacted the creation of electronic music from the late 19th century and onwards into the 20th and 21st. It will also explore the ways radios and the signal and sounds they receive and emit have been used by electronic musicians and composers in the creation of new music. Our story begins with the Musical Telegraph.
Elisha Gray, co-founder of the Western Electric Company, is perhaps most well known as a developer of a prototype telephone. Some scholars consider Gray the true inventor of the telephone. Both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray used liquid transmitters in their experiments with voice transmission over wire. The telephone seems to be one of those ideas that was floating around in the ether at the time, and it is my view that each inventor developed the work independently. In fact Gray arrived at the patent office to file his apparatus "for transmitting vocal sounds telegraphically" just two hours after Bell. After a number of years in the courts, it was Bell's patent that the lawyers held up in a number of decisions.
Though Gray may only be considered a kind of begrudged step-father in terms of telephony, it is clear that the electric synthesizer is the fruit of his seed. In 1874 after Gray had retired from Western Electric to focus on independent research he came up with one of the seventy patents attributed to him. In this case, the Electro-harmonic Telegraph. It was a chance by product of his work on the telephone.
In the course of his work Gray learned he could control sound from a self-vibrating electromagnetic circuit. This led him to the invention of a basic oscillator made of steel rods whose vibrations were created and transmitted over a telegraph line. The instrument consisted of a number of single-tone oscillators that could play over a range of two octaves. Each tone was controlled with a separate telegraph key.
After giving several private demonstrations of the instrument he gave a public performance at the Presbyterian Church of Highland, Illinois on December 29, 1874. A newspaper announcement stated that it transmitted "familiar melodies through telegraph wire". In later models of the instrument he added a simple diaphragm speaker that amplified the tones to a louder volume.
To be fair Bell came at the telephone also through his work as a teacher of the deaf and adjacent studies of music, hearing, sound, and human anatomy. While working for Western Union Telegraph he had been obsessed with solving the problem of creating a "multiple telegraph" -or a way to transmit a number of messages over the same wire. It was this work on the harmonic telegraph that spurred him on to his own invention the telephone.
Antennas and monochords have a lot in common. A monochord is an ancient musical and scientific lab instrument made of one long string, similar in that respect to a long single wire antenna, only the string is stretched over a sounding box of equal length. One or more movable bridges are then moved up and down the string to demonstrate the mathematical relationships among the frequencies produced and for measuring musical intervals. Though it was first mentioned in Sumerian clay tablets, many attribute it's invention to Pythagoras around 6 BCE. These ancients saw within the monochord a mystic holism in which notes, numbers, ratios and intervals combined with the sense of hearing and mathematical reason. Monochords are related to other instruments such as the Japanese koto, the hurdy-gurdy, and the Scandinavian psalmodikon this last used as an accompaniment to voice in sacred music. In medicine the sonometer, a variation of the monochord, continues to be used to diagnose hearing loss and bone density for those who may be at risk for osteoporosis.
The discovery of the precise relationship between the pitch of a musical note and the length of the string that produces it is also attributed to Pythagoras. If he had been able to put electricity into wire strings it might have been Pythagoras who discovered the principle of resonance that makes an antenna match a frequency. What Pythagoras did propose was the idea of the Music of the Spheres, a philosophical concept that conjectures that the movement of celestial bodies creates a form of heavenly music. This theory has continued to haunt the imagination of the West since it was first proposed. Later Plato described astronomy and music as "twinned" studies of sense recognition that both required knowledge of numerical proportions. Astronomy was for the eyes and music was for the ears. Now millenia later astronomy can be studied with the ears of a radio receiver and number crunching supercomputers.
In 1618 the physician, scientist and mystic Robert Fludd conceived a divine or celestial monochord linking the Ptolemaic conception of the universe to musical intervals, suggesting that the instrument could also be used to demonstrate the harmony of the spheres. In Fludd's picture a divine hand reaches down from out of a cloud to tune the monochord to the celestial frequencies of the planets and the stars. Around two and a half centuries later scientists unknowingly started tuning into the terrestrial frequencies that were unknowingly being picked up by telegraph and telephone lines.
In his masterful book Earth Sound Earth Signal Douglas Kahn writes that "radio was heard before it was invented". He goes on to describe how the first person to listen to radio was Alexander Graham Bell's assistant Thomas Watson. He tuned in with a telephone receiver "during the early hours of the night on a long metal line serving as an antenna before antennas were invented." Other telephone users also listened to radio for two decades before Marconi made his first transmission. Watson enjoyed listening to the natural VLF signals given off by the earth, though he did not know it's origin or that it was even radio at all. The natural signals were picked up on the telephone line acting as an extremely long wire that was resonant in the VLF range, from around 3 kHz to 30 kHz and corresponding to wavelengths of 100 to 10 kilometers. Watson's own line from the lab stretched a half mile down the street. Since he wasn't transmitting it didn't have to be fully resonant to pick up the VLF signals. I like to think of these long antenna wires as a type of terrestrial monochord that tunes in to the harmony of the Earth.
Watson did not try to do anything about the noises he heard on the line, as they did not interfere with voice communication. In fact he actually enjoyed listening to spherics, whistlers, dawn chorus and other VLF phenomenon he likely picked up, even as he didn't know or understand their cause. I like to listen to this form of natural radio myself. There are a number of live internet streams from people who have set up VLF listening posts, such as those found at http://abelian.org/vlf/. I think those sounds are as relaxing as listening to the surf of the ocean or a gentle breeze in the trees. Kahn goes on to write that nature "has always been the biggest broadcaster, bigger than all governments, corporations, militaries, and other purveyors of anthropic signals combined." May it remain so.
Fludd's image of the celestial monochord was made famous in 1952 when it came to adorn the cover of The Anthology of American Folk music compiled by Harry Everett Smith and released by Smithsonian Folkways. I think some divine inspiration was passed on to Harry Smith, from the same hand that tunes the instrument, and from him it passed on to all the lives his massive compilation touched. The six-album set brought new levels of cultural awareness to musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Carter Family and Mississippi John Hurt and went on to kick start the folk music revival of the 50's and 60's. It had a strong influence on Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, who are acknowledged as disciples of the anthology. It continues to touch new generations of musicians today.
Avant-garde composer and father of minimalism La Monte Young found early inspiration from another type of electrical monochord. He recalled as a child listening to the droning sound of the power plant next to his Uncle's gas station. He became fascinated by the 60-cycle hum of electricity as it moved along the lines. This inspired such pieces of music as "the Second Dream of the High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer". John Cale and the late Tony Conrad are among the many influenced by Young's work. Both were involved in Young's Theatre of Eternal Music. Cale went on to a long and varied career and is notable for being a founding member of the Velvet Underground. During rehearsals with Young, Cale and Conrad would tune their instruments to the 60-cycle electrical hum, what Young called the "underlying drone of the city".
In the late 70's composer Alvin Lucier started working with physicist John Trefny on a musical acoustics course they were teaching at Wesleyan University. They had set up a monochord and placed an electromagnet over one end while an audio oscillator drove the wire. This created an interaction between the flux field of the magnet and the frequency and loudness of the oscillator, causing the stretched wire to be observed vibrating by the naked eye. This demonstration captivated Alvin's imagination and he started thinking about building a monochord to be used on the concert stage or in galleries. After getting some metal piano wire, clamps and a horseshoe magnet he had a built a portable version whose length could be varied depending on the size of the space. This became his classic piece Music on a Long Thin Wire. What he did was extend the wire across a room, clamping it to tables at either end. The ends of the wire were connected to the speaker terminals and a power amplifier placed under the table. The amplifier in turn had a sine wave oscillator connected to it, and a magnet straddled the wire at one end. Wooden bridges with embedded contact mics were put under the wire at both ends, and these were routed to a stereo systems. This electrified monochord is played by varying the frequency and loudness of the oscillator to create slides, frequency shifts, audible beat frequencies and other sonic effects. Lucier eventually discovered that the instrument could be left to play itself by carefully tuning the oscillator. Air currents, human proximity to the wire, heat or coolness and other shifts in the environment all caused new and amazing sounds to be heard, sometimes spontaneously erupting into triadic harmonies. This electric monochord is an instrument that can play itself just as the long thin wires of the early telephone and telegraph system tuned into the terrestrial harmonies continuously being broadcast by Mother Earth.
Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Magnitude in the Arts by Douglas Kahn
The Hum of the City: La Monte Young and the Birth of NYC Drone by Alan Licht
The Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Everett Smith
Alvin Lucier, Music on a Long Thin Wire, Lovely Music LCD 1011
by Justin Patrick Moore
Their bodies entwined together as the rain from the latest thunderstorm pelted the leaking roof of the squat. The smell of old wet carpet, and the cardboard they’d lain over top of it was heavy in the air, as were other scents, their skin, their sweat. The smell of damp soil from underneath the understory of honeysuckle in the patch of woods where they had suckled each other on the herb gathering trip earlier in the day still clung to them, and they were making the room ripe with their perfumes once again.
Theirs was a new love and a young love and they were enthusiastic in sharing their passions with each other.
“I’m gonna miss this tomorrer,” he whispered in the aftermath, after he had taken her a second time.
His fingers interlaced with his girlfriend’s fingers. She laid her head on his chest, placed her hand along the outline of his scrawny ribs and sunken stomach. They sat up and rolled cigarettes out of butts they’d scrounged from the ashtrays outside the restaurants on Ludlow Hill where the bougie ate. They scavenged as much as they could, and hitting up ashtrays was part of the routine when they made a dumpster diving run as part of their work in the Sprout House Collective.
Wyatt rested in the memory of the first run they had made together, soon after Magdalena had showed up on their doorstep, looking for shelter and protection. They were rooting for anything edible in the slop buckets behind the Lamplight Tavern and they’d filled up a bag of used rib bones to boil down into pork broth and gravy. When the kitchen boy came out with another haul of scraps, he’d caught them and started shooting rocks at them with his slingshot. He saw her smile as they started to run and noticed how her hips moved as they hopped over the fence and started to fall in love. When they were far enough away, when they recovered their breath, they shared their breath, and their spit, and their lips as they leaned against the columns of Unity Lodge. They held hands in quiet night as they walked back down to Camp Washington, the tough neighborhood wedged between the rail yard, the Mill creek and the remains of I-75.
“You don’t gotta go.” She exhaled the smoke into the air. It mingled with the steam from their love making and the steam from the ramen soup they’d brought up from the kitchen. Syd had been able to trade some seeds for forty-eight packs of stale dehydrated noodle soup.
“I do gotta go. I need to do this, I gotta at least try to find my brother and make amends, otherwise it’s gonna be like Marvin says, I’m gonna be haunted by what I shoulda of done, and that’s gonna make it harder for me to keep clean.”
She turned her head and met his eyes in what remained of the LED lights glow. The batteries had started to fade and would have to be put back on the solar trickle charge again tomorrow, which wouldn’t do much good if the sun didn’t come out. “Then will ya take me with ya? I know I ain’t supposed to ask, that this is your bidness more than mine and all, but, it’s just that…” she wanted to say, I’m afraid, to lose ya because I lost too many damn people already, I need ya and I can’t bear to risk ya. She did say it with her brown eyes, with a look of loss that spoke without speaking. Everyone they knew had lost someone, and since neither of them knew anyone bougie neither of them knew a family who had been spared the tragic blows dealt by drugs, tornadoes, influenza.
“You’ll be alright,” he tried to reassure her. “I won’t take long. Juss a day, two at most. You can hang with Syd and Iz, and Marv. There’s always’s work to do, specially with spring here. And when I gets myself back we’ll keep trying to make that baby, start our family.” Since they’d first made love it had been a possibility, one they both accepted. It’s not like they’d ever used protection. Condoms had become a high ticket item during the trade wars, and medical procedures were only available to the bougie, or to those who saved enough to pay up at a clinic. For most folks being broke meant it was too expensive to not have kids.
She pulled her bottom lip up between her teeth. “If it’s a girl I wanna name her Polly.”
“After my sister?”
Her smile was his answer, and he couldn’t find it within himself to argue. He would give her anything she desired. Their pit bull Ziggy got up and moved in closer with them, laid down in a heap. Wyatt soaked in the feeling of safety and warmth. He had lived on the memory of how soft her skin felt against his, of the fullness of her lips.
“Then, we name him Alejandro if it’s a boy.”
Magdalena had protested. “No. Any old thing but that.”
“Why not? If you’d use my sis’s name for a girl ain’t it a bit hippiecrit to not use your brother’s for a boy?”
“I don’t wanna get into it right now.”
There were still so many things about her he didn’t know, so much about her he desired to learn. He needed to know every inch of her, her whole story, leading up to the time when she first stumbled into the squat two months ago.
“Still, I’m going with ya,” she said, “Whether ya like it or no and no matter what we name the bay, if and when it comes.”
He sighed in defeat unable to make comeback. He knew it was pointless trying to get her to change her mind once she’d made a decision. Her stubborn persistence was one of the things he admired about her.
“Besides, I wanna see the hood ya grew up in.”
“Okay,” he said, “It ain’t much, but okay. It ain’t safe over there for me now, that’s kinda why I didn’t want ya to go. Lil Dem and the Ratboy’s don’t take kindly to deserters. I can’t ken what they’ll do when I show up on their turf. There’s a reason I ain’t been back, and I don’t want you getting hurt.”
“But you’ll protect me right?” She squeezed his biceps. For a nineteen year old who didn’t always get enough to eat he was strong. He had gotten stronger since Marvin had helped sober him up, since he’d started doing some meaningful work with the Sprout House crew.
“Sure will, Maggie.”
She buried her head into his chest and pulled the covers up over the frayed sleeping bag. They snuggled together in a tight knot until dawn. Ziggy kept their feet warm.
He woke up hard in the morning, and he woke her up with his kisses, as he pressed his hardness against her thigh.
“You’re mine, Wyatt. For real and for true. Promise?”
As he ravished her body with his, he had never felt so sure of anything else in his life.
The next morning Wyatt went back to his own room to put some things in his leather hip pack. They still hadn’t moved into the same room together, but he thought they would, soon. They were getting serious. Space was at a premium in the squat and the collective could always use more hands to make light work. If he knocked her up as they both hoped, they’d be sharing a lot more. He hoped to borrow a ladder somehow so he could climb up on the roof and patch the leak, so their digs wouldn’t be so damp.
After they ate some more ramen with a couple scrambled eggs from the chickens out back and asked Joan if she would mind the dog while they were gone. Syd and Iz were out fishing in the Mill Creek, Marvin was on one of his mysterious jaunts looking for the useful kit he always seemed to find and bring back, and the rest of the crew were about some chore or other.
“No problem,” Joan said. “I’ll be working out back getting the beds ready for the seeds we started. I hope y’all can make it back for the gig. Terpsi-Core is in town from Cleveland, and it’s sure to be a full house.”
“Damn, I forgot about that.” Wyatt muttered.
The Sprout House served as one of many homes around the region for the ad hoc folk-punk music circuit. The gigs often doubled as a potlatch between squat houses and sometimes after the shows Marvin would hole up in the second floor library with other members of what he called the Arachnet or sometimes the League. Wyatt wasn’t sure if they were the same thing or different, all he was able to gather so far is that they were a secretive group who were organizing around several agendas. Politics had never been his thing and he was only now learning to read a little better, with the help of Joan and some of the others. Marvin had promised he’d learn more in time, but his first task was staying sober, and that meant attempting to heal the rift with his brother.
“If we get back tonight it’ll be late. I ain’t know how long things’ll take with Brett. We might be out overnight.”
“It’s all good,” Joan said. “There’ll be other shows. Terpsi-Core usually comes down at least once a year. May the gods bless and keep you both, and your brother.”
They were about to head out when Wyatt had a funny feeling in his gut. “Hold on, I feel like I’m leaving something behind. Back in a sec.” He ran up to his room and grabbed the banjo from the wall where it hung.
“Yer lookin’ like a regler old troubadour,” Magdalena said when he returned, pointing to the way the instrument was strapped over his back.
“That’s what I was thinkin’. It might help to have some tunes on the way”
“Well be careful you bring it back in one piece,” Joan said. Marvin had given it to him as a first year sobriety present.
He tapped the back of the banjo with his thumb. It had a painting of a turtle shell on the back. “Having this makes me feel better already.”
Going from Camp Washington to River Rat Row was a six mile slog across town, up the hill from the valley, then back down the other side to the community on the river. The city was bustling and alive, but within the throng and crush of moving people, they felt a sense of privacy sometimes absent in Sprout House and they talked over the course of the three hour walk.
“What was growing up in the Row like?” she asked.
“It weren’t all bad,” he said. Each hood had its gang, but the Ratboy’s were known as some of the fiercest, with intimate connections to the drug trade along the inland waterways due to their turf along the docks. The Row had a reputation for hard living, fighting, and dying.
“We used to play tag around the houseboats at Mariner’s Landing, or we’d sneak onto Branson’s farm to steal some veg or whatevs. One time he caught me and Brett and put us to work. But there weren’t nothing to be done. It was either work or take the belt, so we worked. Then he sent us home with a basket. After that I’d go sometimes go over there to help out and he’d give us some food. His farm used to be a park. Mom said her old man played baseball on them fields. Branson’s farm was extra ripe cause the floods during the winter rain put down new soil every year.”
“Furreal?” she said. “I used to help out the nun’s up at St. Theresa’s up in Westwood. They used an old baseball field for their garden too, and fed a lot of the church.”
“The church down here got taken out by a landslide.”
Wyatt wasn’t prepared for her next question. “So, did you have any girlfriends?”
He thought it was a no brainer. He was good looking and had been a member of the gang, so had his pick of the Ratgirl’s; but girl’s whether Rat’s or not, always seemed to want to know these things.
“Yeah, I had a girl. Carly. We grew up together. She was friend’s with Polly.” He was hoping they wouldn’t run in to her. Or Lil Dem.
“What was she like?”
“She’s a redhead. About five feet tall. Liked looking at comic books when she could get em.”
Magdalena frowned, got quiet. Wyatt felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. Had he just said the wrong thing? he wondered. Surely she hadn’t expected him to not have been with anybody else before her.
She ran her fingers through her braided black hair with all their beads, bolts, shells and feathers tied in. “I thought you liked Latina’s?!”
“I do. I like you!”
“I never heard of a Latina girl with red hair. Not unless she died it. So was it like the color of a beet or a rose?”
Wyatt did’n’t know what to say. He hadn’t encountered this side of her before. All he could think of was, “You must’a had a boyfriend too. It’s ain’t like you were inexperienced.”
Uh oh, he thought. I done blown it now.
They kept walking in an oppressive silence. After awhile he started to pick a tune on the banjo to try to lighten the mood. She glared at him. His playing wasn’t the best. He’d only just started to learn a few months ago. He tried playing a song they’d both heard at a gig at the Phoenix Asch House Collective. It was a simple number, and he had been working on playing the tune himself, though he still didn’t have the chords down quite right.
“Our house, in the middle of our street… our house. I remember way back then when everything was true and when, we would have such a very good time, such a fine time, such a happy time, and I remember how we'd play, simply waste the day away, then we'd say nothing would come between us…two dreamers. Our house…”
“Yeah, I had a beau,” she conceded, lightening up the mood.
Magdalena told him about Max. He’d been a member of the Westworld Loco’s, succumbed to the drug nepenthe as so many had, and after two years on it, no longer recognized her anymore. Her trust in him had disintegrated just as Max’s memory had. Not that she’d been drug free. Just nepenthe free.
He told her how he snuck Carly into the upper floors of old brick homes in the intertidal, whose first floors were underwater, parking a borrowed canoe in the living.
They were quiet again until they reached the top of the hill and could see the Ohio river stretched below them, the docks of River Rat Row on its banks, and the hustle and bustle of vessels in the brown water.
“I hope Brett’s down there,” he said. “He probably still works for Lil Dem. I did too. We all did. Anyone who was a Ratboy worked for him. I don’t wanna run into Carly or them. That was my old life. But I’ve kicked nepenthe and am getting my memory back, getting my life back. That was my old life, I don’t wanna shut the door on it, but I want you to know I ain’t gonna re-embrace it neither. You the only thing I’m gonna embrace now.”
Up on the top of Walnut Hill the city lay sprawled all around them, from what remained of the skyscrapers downtown to the redlight district in Kentucky on the other side of the river, Cincinnati’s Southside. They took in the view. They took each other all in, their past lives, loves and whatever future lay ahead. He brought her close into him and kissed her in the cold spring sun as the wind blew through his blonde hair.
Holding hands they descended down the potted and crumbled asphalt gravel road to the valley below.
Back in the day River Rat Row had once been known as the East End. Except for a brief splurge by the bougie when it poshed out and money flowed in and condos were built in a rebranding effort, it had always been a working class hood. It had slid back down to its original status as a place for the stiffs when a series of landslides from the constant rain spilled onto the condos that had been built on the bottom of the hill. At the same time the banks of the Ohio started creeping up over the roads, and anyone who still had a dime to their name bolted for higher ground. It was a pattern replicated all across the seven hills of the Queen City. Those who could afford it moved to the top and those who couldn’t slid into the many valleys and hollers of the region.
Coming back down to the grounds he had stomped as a child and young man, after being gone for almost two years, filled Wyatt with fear and a sudden riotous longing for his old way of life. The excitement of the violence and the oblivion of the drugs and the interpersonal drama within the gang all called out to him as the ramshackle collection of houses, sheds, shacks, chicken coops, garages, tents, yurts and junk cabins came into view. All of these were built up around the long warehouses close to the docks where goods flowed into and out of the city.
Magdalena could tell Wyatt was agitated. “Take a deep breath,” she said.
He inhaled through his nose and imagined a spark of fire within him, radiating stillness and serenity as Marvin had taught him.
When they stepped over Columbia Parkway they became trespassers on the Ratboy’s turf.
“Just cause I quit the game ain’t mean the Rat’s will see it ataways. Far as they care I ain’t rat no more, but a mouse.”
“You’r no mouse to me. It’ll work out, you’ll see. Will ya show me the house you grew up in?”
He sighed and said, “Might as well.”
As they walked he saw a group of ten year old boys and girls headed down to the river with their fishing poles and pails. “On the happy days, that’s what it was like” he told her, pointing to the kids. “I do miss livin’ by the river. Fishin’ the Mill Creek ain’t near enough the same as fishin’ the Ohio. Sure, you got mostly carp in either stream, but down here there’s something ‘bout watching the barges, sailboats and canoes on the big water that juss set’s me right. Even if there’s a bunch drama going down, or whatever, standing at the docks in the morning or at night, or down at some of the other holes, it’s just peaceful.”
“You good at fishing? Round Westwood people spent more time trying to shoot geese or hunt deer.”
Wyatt looked at her. “You kiddin’? I can fish the hell out of this river. Give me a gun or a slingshot and I’ll get a goose from Christmas dinner, you juss wait ‘n see. You won’t starve with me. Not if I can help it.”
They passed the five and dime on the corner of his old street. Tobe was still sitting out front under the awning with his peg leg, courtesy of a barge accident, propped up on a plastic bucket. Mothers and their broods were hanging laundry on the lines that crisscrossed between the buildings and shacks. Wyatt recognized some of them and felt a trickle of adrenaline, and the uptick of his heart. It was only a matter of time before he ran into a banger.
They came to the house he’d grown up in. Smoke wisps blew out the chimney, and shouting, just as it ever had, drifted out the windows sheeted by plastic and duct tape. Fading graffiti spoke in rude idioms across the brick.
“There it is,” he said. “I can’t say I miss it. It ain’t like a whole lotta good ever happened there.”
She could tell his mood had slumped. “Hey Wy, it’s all good. If we were up in my hood looking at all the different camps and flops my padre dragged us through, I’d feel about the same. But I do like you showin’ me.”
“I know ya like it when I show ya,” a small smile cracked his lips. “But yeah, this house, it don’t hold any memories I like to dwell on. A few weeks after I got jumped into the Ratter’s, Polly ran away and I ain’t seen her since. Mom lost it bad after that. I came home after a run on a warehouse for Lil Dem and found her dead. Empty nep baggies were all over the bed.”
"Hell, I’m sorry, I shoulda known better than to ask you take me to this place, stirring things up.”
“Don’t worry bay, we got this.” Wyatt squeezed Magdalena’s hand.
“My padre done got himself hanged because of nep,” Magdalena said. “He shot a man in the back for a fix, and then the Loco’s came down on him, ‘cause the man he killed was one of them. So they caught him, and noosed him up in a tree for everyone to see. I wanted to cut him down and bury him but Max wouldn’t let me. After that, I hated Max, and Max started losing his memory from the drug, and I couldn’t deal with all that drama. Then my drinking got worse.”
Nobody knew who’d brewed up the first batch of nepenthe. Some speculated it was the Chinese, or the Russians adding fuel to the fentanyl flames in a plan to further deteriorate and demoralize the American republic. People in politics still blamed Islamic terrorist cells, or on the troops who’d brought it home from the Middle East and formed gangs to distribute it when they couldn’t adapt to realities at home in the fading empire. Others said it came from a big pharma lab up in Canada, that it had been part of an Alzheimer’s cure when the recipe got leaked onto what remained of the dark net.
After an intense bout of pain numbing euphoria, nepenthe reworked the memory circuits of the brain resetting the short term, so the person who took it couldn’t recall they had taken it. It pulled the blackout curtain down over what they’d done while under its influence. The fact that it was highly addictive made it a royal pain to get off of because they hardly remembered taking it in the first place. For those who got hooked long term memories disintegrated over time into nothing until they ambled around the world like someone with dementia.
“We stopped staying here after mom died and went to live in the Rathaus. Brett’s a bit schizo, has these super hyper moods, and then he can’t get out of bed for days. It got worse when he got jumped in. He got tight with some of the upper crew and didn’t listen to me much after that.
“It weren’t long after that when I caught Carly sneakin’ behind my back with Lil Dem. I got so jealous I couldn’t take orders from the bastard. Brett didn’t need me, and I hated myself for giving him his first dose of nep so I took myself down to the tracks hoping to end it all.”
“And that’s when Marvin found you?”
“Yup. He jumped off a box car and tackled me when he saw what I was gonna do. Talked to me all night, then convinced to go to the Sprout House, get clean. I’m finally starting to get my memory back. Seems like I’m only now kennin’ who and what I am. Maybe if I’d never taken nep or joined the Rats I’d be workin’ on the river now.”
“So where do we go now? The Rathaus?”
Wyatt was nervous and wanted to stall. “We could go to the biergarten first. Can I buy ya lunch?” The walk had burned off the ramen and he had a bit of coin from doing odd jobs Marvin found for him.
The biergarten was next to the docks and served the men and stout, butch women who were unloading goods from the boats, zipping two-wheelers loaded with boxes down the gangplanks and into large warehouses.
Long rows of picnic tables under an open shelter made up the biergarten. Food shacks were set up between towering cottonwoods and sycamores, serving up gumbo and chili potatoes. It was a Saturday and people were getting off work early, and the boats-men were starting in on the beer.
He got a large bowl of carp, catfish, and mussel gumbo with chunks of cornbread from one of the stands and they sat down at table as far away as they could get from the others who were chowing down.
“Ya know what?” she asked. He shook his head. “This is our first date.”
He laughed. “Some kind of date I’ve taken you on,” and then then spooned a scoop into her open mouth.
He remembered Marvin’s advice on eating regular meals when they could be had. They were an antidote against slipping back into old patterns, and if he wasn’t hungry, he’d be less irritable, discontent, better able to do what he had to do. The meal took the edge off of his nerves.
As they ate a man wearing a frayed seersucker suit jumped up on a table and began to address the gathered crowd with a bullhorn. He rattled off a scurrilous screed marking him as a member of the New American Syndicate. Members of the Waterways Union were starting to salute the speaker with sloshing steins of ale.
“Let’s get outta here before these folks get all riled up.”
They slipped past the tables and the warehouses and were almost in among the rowbo shacks and drug dens that huddled around the protection of the Rathaus when he spotted Carly walking towards them. She was wearing the blue bandanna of the gang tight around her tangled red hair. Carly saw Wyatt at the same time and he could feel tension in the air rippling off of Magdalena who already had her hand clenched in a fist.
As Carly walked up to them he saw she had a fresh black eye and a bruise on her cheek. Lil Dem, he thought. He’d seen the chief lose his temper before. It could’ve been a fight with another gang, but it was probably Lil Dem. Wyatt never could kill his conscience enough to treat the women the way some of the other guys in the gang did.
He could tell she was seething from the way she hot-boxed her cigarette. Some drama must have just gone down and he found himself relieved he didn’t have to live like that anymore.
“You come back to get your ass killed?” she said, flicking the cig onto the dirt trail.
“’Course not. I came to talk to Brett. Is he around?”
She huffed and looked over her shoulder. Then she nodded her head over to a side trail through the brush along the river where they went to be out of view.
Carly sized Magdalena up. “I’m guessing you with him?”
“That’s right. He’s my beau and I’m his girl.”
“Well ain’t you lucky. Me and him had some fun together, but in the end, he wouldn’t ever been able to take care of me, or my needs. I hope it’s better for you.”
Magdalena and Wyatt both knew her hardness was a front, but it didn’t make them any less uncomfortable. Magdalena had her guard up, but was trying to stay cool, reasonable.
“He’d doing just fine. I’m lucky to have him.”
“We heard you was living in some kind of hippie-punk commune, is that so?”
Before she knew what she had done Magdalena let it slip, “yeah, the Sprout House Collective.” Wyatt glared at her, and Carly’s lip curled in a slight grimace of a smile.
“Carly, I’m not here to stir up any other shit,” Wyatt said. “I’m not in any other gang. I just need to talk to my brother, Brett.”
“Yer brother ain’t yer brother anymore, he belongs to the Rats, just like your ass does if any of ‘em spot ya out here. Me I’m givin’ you a pass because yer sister was my girl, and I know how it is to lose the only blood you got left.”
Carly’s brother, her last blood family, had been in the gang. Now he was on the bottom of the river. He’d had an unfortunate run in with the 100 Proofers.
“So where is he?”
“He’s across the river. He ain’t been around for two days. We sent him over to Bobbie’s Honky-Tonk on a job and he ain’t made it back. Lil Dem’s startin’ to worry.”
“Why’d you send him there!?”
“Bidness, just like usual.”
“You sure that’s where he went?”
Carly lit another cigarette and nodded.
“Come on Maggie, we gotta go.”
Running to the ferry landing Wyatt felt even more guilt for his brother’s fate than he had before.
The ferry ride across the Ohio to Southside Cincy’s redlight district was quick. Dirty biodiesel fumes spilled into the air. A worried grandma in her forties with a couple of scared toddler’s in tow looked over the rails into water chopped by the wind. The ferry passed between the columns of an exhausted bridge. Wyatt and Magdalena held hands as they looked up through the gaps where concrete had fallen away from the rebar. The sun was in the west and the clouds glowed with pink phosphorescence.
Wyatt rubbed the coarse stubble above his lip. “You’ve heard the rumors about Bobbie’s, right?”
“Never even heard of the place.”
“Really? I thought everyone kenned the honky-tank. People tell all these stories ‘bout it, ‘bout how the owner Bobbie never ages but looks the same year after year. But what’s more, supposedly down in the basement, there’s a gateway to the underworld. To the land of the dead, or the fairies, some say both. They say that’s where Bobbie comes from and gets her power from.”
Magdalena had been raised on tales of miracles performed by the saints, and honored the dead on Dios de los Muertos, but even with all her Catholic folk belief it still sounded preposterous. “You juss messin’ right?”
“Naw, I’m furreal. At least that’s what the stories say. I only went once before, Lil Dem dragged me up there with him, and I never saw Bobbie, so I don’t know. But the place felt weird. I felt real tired after leaving, like something’d been sapped from me.”
As they traveled downriver they passed a long stretch of rowbo jungles along both banks. A grizzled old man tended a cauldron of mulligan stew over a fire, and others passed around mugs of dandelion coffee and jars of moonshine. Cincinnati had some of the biggest rowbo camps outside Cairo, Illinois where the Ohio met the Mississippi as itinerant workers canoed, kayaked, and rowed up and down the rivers of the country looking for work. The one along Cincy’s Southside was a real popular jungle due to its proximity to the brothels, hookah lounges and nep dens.
“My mom told me my dad was rowbo,” Wyatt said. “Maybe he’s in that camp now. Or some other camp down on the Mississippi. If he ain’t dead, if he ain’t drowned himself in liquor or the river itself.”
Magdalena raised her eyebrow, gave him a look. Wyatt went on.
“He was working down on the docks when they met. He spent a couple years with us. I still remember his mustache. They was always partying and always fighting, but then they had a real big fight. Mom said he’d grown restless for the rowbo life, so he left and went to stick his rod somewhere else. I kinda wonder how many other bro’s and sis’s I got out there.”
“It’ll be different for our kids,” Magdalena said. “They’ll know the both of us and know each other.”
“It’d be good if they ken their uncle. I wish Polly’d stuck around too.”
The ferry docked on the other side of the city and they started to walk towards the Licking River, a north flowing tributary that wound its way through the hills and hollers of Kentucky until it bisected the Southside of Cincinnati and poured into the Ohio.
“Bobbie’s Honky Tonk is a couple more miles up the Licking. Let’s get walkin’.”
The streets were jammed with pedestrians, bicycle rickshaws, horses and buggies. Beer and bourbon flowed in the bars, money was being lost and won in the gambling holes, and male and female prostitutes of every stripe and persuasion plied their ancient trade. There was something to be had for whatever price point fit the budget. The wealth that flowed into the district kept the streets and buildings there in better repair than some of the other neighborhoods, but underneath it all was a sense of something of rotting.
An hour later they were at the entrance of Bobbie’s Honky-Tonk. Surrounding the building proper was a small compound of shipping containers serving as hookup pads for the customers who came looking to pay for sex. Men and women ranging from their teens to their thirties stood outside or milled about on the patio, smoking cigarettes, drinking, flaunting their wares. Magdalena kept her eye on Wyatt’s eye, making sure he didn’t look overlong at any of the women who were dressed to sell.
Wyatt looked her in the eye, “None of these have anything on you, girl. Besides, life’s best things are free.”
Hanging electric lights flickered above the patio as the sun set lending the place a touch of class. The power came from a generator in the watercourse. The entire area the nightclub was situated on was verdant and full of life. Having stepped onto the property they both felt a sense that the rest of world was dull. There was a sense of being more alive and it made them both wary, as if something had been overlaid on top of them.
Inside the clientele was a mix. Not just dockworkers, buggy drivers, and hard labor, but wealthy farmers in fancy duds, bourbon and horse barons entertaining potential business partners, and some bespectacled clerks and suited newspapermen who milled about the bar ordering drinks. A crowd gathered in front of the stage where a real live electric billyrap band was tuning up to play. Lots of women mingled, and not just Bobbie’s employees. They’d come to slake their thirst for whisky, music, men, or women. Bobbie’s had a reputation, not just for the strange stories, but as a place anybody could come to forget their cares. The one thing the visitors all had in common was an enchanted sparkle in their eyes.
The smell of the battered fish and chips wasn’t bad either. Servers carried platters to the tables. Wyatt’s stomach rumbled. All through the winter he’d struggled to get enough calories.
There were upstairs rooms for various entertainments and rumors of other pleasures downstairs below.
“You see your brother?”
“No. Let’s ask.” He waved down a waiter, and slipped him all but the remaining coins he’d need to get back over the river. The band had started to play and he had to shout into the guy’s ear.
Magdalena noticed another room off the main hall. A taxidermied deer head and large snake were mounted above the entrance and a leather clad bouncer guarded the door.
“He’s in there,” Wyatt said. “VIP only. I don’t ken how we’ll get past him.”
They felt odd standing around, without drinks, the only two sober people in the place, so they sauntered up to the bar, ordered ginger sodas, and formulated a plan. The house band started in on a version of the Knoxville Girl. Wyatt knew the murder ballad and it filled him with a sense of dread.
“I took her by her golden curls and I drug her round and around, throwing her into the river that flows through Knoxville town” the band rapped.
Magdalena got up and walked over to the bouncer. She gave him a distressed look and then started raging at him, then pointed at an unsuspecting man watching the band. The bouncer went over to talk to the guy, thinking he’d done something to her, and she dipped out the door to a meeting place down the road.
Wyatt slipped into the vacated door and headed down the stairs to the basement, and into another world.
The smell of the river permeated the porous rock of the basement. Another smell of honey, milk, and the nectar of fresh cut flowers floated on top of it. There was an orange oscillating light coming in from the room, low voices, giggles, and sighs.
Wyatt stepped into a love nest. Soft pillows covered the floor and silk hangings adorned the walls. Vases with exotic flowers were set on stands and oil lamps scented with fragrant perfumes intoxicated the air. A multi-stemmed hookah was in the center of the room, it’s drifting smoke adding to the haze of unreality he started to feel. Underneath it all was a slick smell of sex, a throbbing heat, and the wetness of the previous night’s rain seeping through the foundations.
Brett was there and the elfin Bobbie tangled up with him, her cream white buttocks bare in the glow, covering Brett’s more private parts. She was as young looking as the stories told, a lady in her early twenties. Yet how could it be she looked so young when she had owned the honky-tonk for over fifty years? Some said she’d owned it longer. Her jet black hair fell to her shoulders. She turned to look at the interloper and the room grew cold with her gaze, the lighting dimmed, shivers ran up Wyatt’s spine.
In the corner of the room he noticed a cellar door with a heavy lock. A skeleton key
hung around Bobbie’s neck. She held one hand on the key and another clutched Brett’s neck. “How did you get past my guard?”
“I didn’t see nobody.” He looked at his pale, spent brother. “I didn’t mean to interrupt yer fun, but Brett, I gotta talk to ya!” Bobbie kept her long green painted fingernails wrapped around his neck.
“What the hell..?” His brother looked as if he was coming up for air after a deep dive.
“You always said I had bad timing.” Wyatt adjusted the banjo strapped to his back.
“You can put that down,” she said in a commanding hypnotic voice. “I can see you’ve been carrying it awhile and the burden must be getting to you.”
No one stood between Wyatt and his banjo. All he could do was shake his head.
Brett tried to talk but he was so high and sexed up all he could do was a mumble.
“Maybe you’d like to join us, then” she said with a greedy hunger and bewitching resonance in her voice. “Come sit down here and smoke and play with us. You don’t mind sharing me do you Brett? You never did before.”
A strong arousal started building in Wyatt’s blood despite the fact that Bobbie wasn’t his type. She was way too pale for his taste, but he got the feeling that his response wasn’t of his own volition. It took every effort of his will to resist the urges she was casting into him.
Images of the girl he loved ran through his mind.
“Come on, Magdalena won’t mind.”
“How’d you know…” The stories must be true. He shuddered.
His brother sat up. His hazel eyes were bloodshot and rheumy. He wiped his nose on his arm, reached for the stem of the hookah and took a long puff, then directed the stem towards his brother. He could smell hash interlaced with nepenthe. Wyatt noticed Bobbie wasn’t smoking the stuff herself.
“Naw, brother. I gave it up. That’s why I’ve come looking for you. I need to tell you I’m sorry.”
His brother fell into a coughing fit. “For what?”
“For giving you the stuff in the first place. And for all that’s happened between us since mom died.”
Brett looked dislocated, as if some memory had just dropped into his skull offering a new temporal view. A small tear, glistened in the corner of his eye, close to the tattooed tear from the Rats he wore so proud.
“I got this girl Brett, and me and her are bound to have some kids soon, from the way were going at it. I want you to meet her, you could come live with us, and we could help get you clean.”
“You’re a grown man,” Bobbie said to Brett before he could reply. “You don’t need a big brother to baby you. Look how long it’s taken him to come back to you anyway.”
“ Bobbie, shut up! Aren’t you getting enough of me? What’s the harm in talking? ”
“I missed you bro, all our adventures, the good times, the craziness…”
“Why’d you ditch me, man?”
“I lost my fracking head.” Wyatt said. “I was going to kill myself, and then I was stopped by this man. Then I was saved again when I met Maggie. I been meaning to come see you, but…it’s been hard to come back, I didn’t wanna risk what I’m starting to build, but I got to this point where I couldn’t go on unless I came back…”
“I apprish ya coming back Wy. I do. But down here,” he looked at Bobbie, “I never felt so good in my life.”
“I ken ya do right now. But there’s so much more than the game. And after a few months off the drugs, life does get better.”
“I don’t ken man. I think this the best it’ll ever get for me.”
Wyatt’s heart was breaking. Then he heard an old tune they’d both known calling in his soul. Something mom had sung to them all those years ago. He thought maybe if he could play it, he’d have a chance of getting through to him.
He started banging out the tune, clawhammer style, rapping the words in an incantatory cadence that came from a secret place he hadn’t kenned was inside him.
As he played the milk and honey and nectar which had covered Brett’s eyes started to dissipate and Bobbie’s heart softened for a moment from the sound of Wyatt’s playing and she let go of the clutch and glamour she held on her boy toy. The light was coming back into Brett. He rose unsteadily to his feet and shambled towards his brother.
Now was his chance.
“Let’s go” Wyatt turned to go upstairs, in a hurry to get his brother back to the land of the living. It felt like he was climbing up a mountain. Each step was an effort to take and when he reached the top he looked back down to see if Brett was still with him. To his dismay Brett was once again entangled in Bobbie’s lair.
Brett called up to his brother, “Give my love to the bay when you have one, and please, name her Polly.”
“Are you crazy Brett?”
“Maybe I am, maybe I am. Be seeing you bro.”
Wyatt let out a horrified moan of despair and he ran to find Magdalena, letting his brother go.
Wyatt kept to the shadows on his way to the docks where Magdalena was waiting for them, the ferryman ready to take them back across the Ohio. This time they were dropped off downtown, closer to Camp Washington.
It was still a long walk back and Wyatt was lead-footed in silence on the way home. He didn’t want to let her see him cry, and he didn’t want her to see him fly off into a rage. He craved the false comfort of nepenthe, and he craved anything that would obliterate the pain of loss that burned inside. He tried to recapture the divine spark of the void, the stillness within him, but it was elusive.
Then he looked at Maggie and knew she was enough.
As they got closer to their block the smell of fire lay heavy on the air. It wasn’t just
cook fires, trash fires, bon fires, or stove fires. This was house fire, plastic fire, burning furniture and timber down to the foundations fire. Both were all too familiar with the smell. They could hear it too, the cries, the crackle, the chaos.
“Come one,” she yelled, and they mustered a third wind of energy in the late night to
make a final mad dash to the grand old building that had once been Sprout House. Flames spit out the window that had once been their room. Marvin, Syd, Iz and a crowd of people they didn’t ken were doing their best to fight the conflagration. It was to no avail.
Joan came up to them crying with Ziggy was in tow. Joan leaned into Magdalena.
“What happened?” Magdalena asked.
“Don’t worry Wy,” Joan said. “It’s not your fault. At the gig tonight… some different folks than usual came in. We thought they were bangers and had our people check them out, but we couldn’t be sure, so they came in. The girl, she was all bruised up, and we thought she needed shelter, and in the middle of the gig between songs, she lit a Molotov, and said ‘this is for harboring a Rat’ and threw it into a bookshelf. Another was with her and threw one in the stairwell.”
Wyatt looked at Maggie who was pulling her hair in anguish. She had mentioned the Sprout House to Carly. “It’s my fault… I let slip where we live.”
“It ain’t your fault bay,” Wyatt said, taking her in his arms. “I take the blame, look at all this trouble I brought on us all. It was too risky going back. I shoulda let my brother go a long time ago.”
“No, you did what you needed to do,” Joan said through tears. “You can’t be responsible for her actions. All we can do now is try and rebuild. And it’s a good thing you took that banjo with you, otherwise it’d be up there burning.”
2 MONTHS LATER
The members of the Phoneix Asch House had helped put some of the Sprouts up as they began the process of scouting out a new squat, but their space was cramped and some folks decided to build a temporary camp in a field along the banks of the Mill Creek.
Wyatt was putting the last nail into a shack he’d improvised and Ziggy was already sacked out inside when Magdalena came over to him and said. “It looks awesome! And I’ve got something to tell ya.”
He grinned. “What, you pregnant already?”
She nodded. “I am. I ain’t had a period since just about a week after the fire.”
“I guess now that you’s knocked up, think it’s time we shacked up?!”
“You ken it! Only promise me one thing.”
“That you’ll be mine, forever.”
“I will girl, I will. Always and forever. For real and for true.”
--Justin Patrick Moore
April 24, 2019
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.