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Bruce Miller
Illustration by Sharon "Mama" Spell

Skillet croaked and staggered out of the fish joint, nearly crawling home, pregnant with batter-fried cod. Once outside, greeting the cracked pavement, he began to moan, adding volume and severity as he stumbled. Flower vases, coffee cans, old socks, and even a television set made their way out of sleepy second story windows, tossed by irritated neighbors. The joke peddler wobbled by with his cart and pressed play on a battered cassette deck. Out of a mangled tape came a horrible joke and some canned laughter. He then took off his hat, exposing one greasy lock on his otherwise baldhead, and passed it to Skillet, who turned his pockets over to show he had no change. The peddler swatted him on the cheek.

By the time Skillet arrived at the midget-sized door of his Hangerville hovel, wreathed in electric wire, blown tubes, forgotten coffee grounds, and footwear, he realized he didn't have his keys. Helpless, but excited about what his moaning had produced, he moaned on.

His neighbor, Bahta, a woman comfortably into her fifties, woke from the couch she'd propped on her porch and snatched up the one-string fiddle she'd built with dried, stretched deer skin, a turtle shell, a sliver of Broad oak and that same deer's innards for the string. Behind his moans came her drones, closer as she crept over to him. Together they meshed, sad and deeply disturbing. There was no change of key, no sudden nuances, no sense of hurry. It was as if they'd been doing this together for years, as if their culture demanded it from time to time.

They were both kneeling now, knees perhaps cramping, but the music was larger than the need to move, lest the sound be muffled, jerked, or broken.

When it finally came to an end, Skillet snatched himself upright, nearly knocking the bow from his neighbor's hand and testified. As the woman in the bar upstairs tossed a music box at them both, he exclaimed, "That's it. That's the sound I've been looking for.” His eyes reflected the neon Vacuum World sign across the street. The coffee grounds tumbled off him like old jokes.

Skillet Caprico had come across Hangerville the same way many come across a likeable T-shirt in a thrift store. Past boarded up storefronts, 39-cent hamburger joints, "pleasure" bars, bookstores ransacked and reeking of molded paper, and grease splattered fish joint windows he'd wandered. The town was constantly abuzz with bicycle rickshaw taxis and banana dealers. Women stout as mountains, with savvy, often toothless faces sold potatoes, sometimes using their sacks as pillows for afternoon naps. There were half-finished businesses on stilts and garbage piles with hidden treasures for early morning tinkers and rounders who cared to look. But past the town’s sweat, poverty, and life lay its violence. Skillet had witnessed small children getting their heads stomped in by drunken police chiefs and a grown man cut to ribbons by a thrift store proprietor's switch-blade for merely stealing a pair of long underwear. Yet the energy of place, its life and the swell of sounds it created, made him decide to make it home. He listened.

The nights were his stereo system and the noise around him kept him quiet. Above the room he’d found was a watering hole run by a russet-skinned woman with a mat of auburn hair. He could hear her cussing out friends on the phone and running off customers before they'd even finished their drinks. One night over a simple vegetable Creole, he cowered in a corner and aurally attended a small riot brought about by the sudden closing of the local Shop-n-Save. The next day he scooped up the broken glass and shards of tile leftover from the affair for a mosaic he'd been imagining.

He'd spent bewitched months listening to all these sounds in a neighborhood where houses were bricked and stacked next to each other as if to keep themselves warm. They jutted over hillsides and bloomed majestically in the wintertime through bare branches.

Skillet had been through a lot. He'd jostled his family around, constantly moving them every time he got restless, which usually coincided with a work layoff or a falling out with a friend. In other words, he chose to pick up and go at opportune times for him to open up and take a look at himself much as he might open the hood of a ’66 Comet and simply adjust the spark plugs or give it a change of oil. His kids whined about all the school changes, and his wife wondered if they'd ever own a home.

Then a year of stability came to him and his family. He worked as a caretaker for a quadriplegic ex-carpenter while his wife taught second grade. His children brought their friends home from school and their neighbors found his wife amicable, even if they found Skillet pensive and rudely quiet. The Capricos bought and renovated a hunk of clayey, eroded property, terraced a garden in the back, squeezed into the cottage and rented out the house in front to a sound artist who had been wearing the same pants for six years. They could hear him early in the morning recording blurps and squeals onto tape while he testified about his trombone addiction into a megaphone. Skillet's wife rolled her eyes while he poured her coffee, kissed her cheek and tried to get her to accept that her mornings would be more interesting this way.

Unfortunately, one evening the quadriplegic managed to wheel himself out to a bus stop with his forearms, direct the driver to a pawnshop, purchase a pistol, take another bus home, call his night attendant, inform her that friends were putting him to bed, and blow his brains from his head into his living room. Skillet had been about to dig a trench around his crippled boss’ shed when he’d stepped into that bloody brain-blasted living room for a drink. He later realized that the recently deceased had known who would find his body.

Again, Skillet was in a perfect spot to contemplate his situation and grow in spirit. His wife had her fingers crossed while the kids pulled bags from under their beds. This time, however, he simply disappeared. He made his decision in the nearby street about half a block away from a neighbor's boy who was swinging a broom back and forth while a trail of ants accepted his feet as a mountain they had to navigate. Skillet bawled his eyes out. He hadn't cried such tears in his life. There's no way I'm gonna move my family again, he thought, but there's no way I'm stayin' here.

Before Skillet moved to Hangerville, music had meant nothing to him. He'd never bought a record, gone to a concert, danced, or even hummed to the radio. But here, alone, he was free to listen to the sound of garage doors being hand-cranked in the morning, the upstairs bar maid scream about not being able to pay back a thousand dollar loan to her friend by the end of the month, the rhythmic whine of rusted bicycle chains, or his neighbor tap her fingernails on her homemade coffee mug, making the sound of a bell. The squeaks of children's seesaws drove him to carry a tape recorder. One sultry afternoon he stood in the park with the record button pressed, microphone arm extended as if asking for a handout, for the length of a ninety-minute tape. He played his tapes at home, editing squeaks, grunts, bird songs, and rants from town beggars into strange concoctions.

He’d also become addicted to fried fish the same way someone else might develop a nasty whiskey habit. There was something about the batter, the sweaty smell of it from the sidewalk outside that got into his blood. It was served hanging from a white bun, the fish itself protruding half a foot on either side. He would bite into one side, slurping up everything dangling out, making his way to the bread. Around him men, golden from the sun, slept or gazed at faded paintings of women stretched out on couches and chairs, looking themselves besotted, listless. The proprietor took turns watching a small television and Skillet’s eating habits. He took the occasional order, refilled a drink here or there, swatted mosquitoes, scratched the back of his neck, and hummed. He also finally offered Skillet a job as a cook.

It was here that Skillet had his first conversation with anyone, and it was also here that he realized the town of Hangerville thought nothing of its violent outbursts. Customers thought his talk of sounds was that of a man touched by too much restlessness. They turned away from him anytime he suggested he’d heard something just before every brutality he’d witnessed.

The night, that two buddies, frustrated over the outcome of a card game, stabbed each other repeatedly in front of their wives, Skillet was strolling home. He was certain of a low hum that presented itself between knife swipes and faded away once both men lay shivering in their blood. Surely there was a remedy for this, he thought.

Skillet had gotten to know his neighbor, Bahta, upon moving into his little place. She wore large dresses that always seemed to dance when she moved. Everything she touched, whether it be an end table she was dusting or the laundry she was scrubbing out back, made amplified sounds. Yet when she played her fiddle, it only seemed to augment the other noises in their neighborhood. Dogs’ panting got louder, the town’s few cars, jostling over broken streets past beggars, hustlers, and bicycles became squeaking symphonies. Also, Bahta did something no one else seemed to do. She smiled. It would take Skillet months before he noticed this. And it was this expression that she carried like a rare photo the day Skillet asked her if there was some way they could make music together.

“I’d love to do it. I’ve heard you hummin’, and it was all right. But even better, I’ve picked out the rhythm in your shuffle and allowed it to keep me awake at night.” Bahta fixed her eyes on Skillet’s, hers falling when his fell, gazing straight as his did, even following his to his front porch, noticing the same peculiar ripple in the wood. “But there’s somethin’ I need to do first.” With that she dragged an unidentifiable, misshapen hunk of metal, warped and burnt beyond repair, out to her curbside. Next to it, she placed a sign, slamming it into a weak bit of dirt and grass with a rawhide mallet. It read: Old Lawnmower. Needs Work. $25.

Their sessions began with the summer and took place behind Bahta’s house between a patch of Brussels sprouts and kale and an old shed. Usually, Skillet began by tapping on a pot filled half way with water, liquefying its tone, stretching and echoing. Bahta scraped her fiddle in short bursts or subtle whines. Whatever rhythms their pieces contained had to be found slowly, perhaps only after Skillet smacked every hunk of metal Bahta had. Or maybe it would come from his throat, soft, almost blending with the mumblings of a nearby corner conversation. Other nights they fell straight into hypnotic grooves, the fiddle driving gutter-tongued exclamations from Skillet. After a few weeks of this, they could call up familiar rhythms with a simple hum, scrape, or thump. In this way, they worked up a set of tunes.

Skillet recorded them all and played them in the fish joint kitchen, instigating sporadic dancing from the regulars and concern form the owner, not so much for the music itself but for the committed, convicted gaze in Skillet’s eyes as he listened.

By the end of June there was, after an oddly extended period of calm, a brawl between a cop and two homeless women. These women—with faces like sturdy copper plates, a bit chipped but nowhere near broken—worked as a pair, collecting cookware and clothes that wealthier families had tossed to the street on trash days. They sold as many of their finds as they could, or better yet, took them to market and traded them for vegetables, a portable radio, or scrap wood for a shelter they never seemed to finish. There is no logic for why they would be tolerated for so long only to be pounced upon unexpectedly. However, the two had overpowered the cop and were attempting to tie him up in an old sheet. Skillet, who had been watching the sight over fish, took off his apron, ran out of the restaurant, shook Bahta from her couch, and told her to grab the instruments. She strolled down the street in a blue and white striped cloak, a red scarf wrapped around her head. Skillet motioned for her to hurry but she paid him no mind.

They set up and played, Skillet humming high into the back of his throat, Bahta matching him, her fiddle plunging into her chest. She jerked the bow back and forth as if it had done something wrong. They created a swirling drone that made the brawlers hesitate and finally stop. The women gave the cop a bottle of what appeared to be Schnapps and he staggered on, but not before grabbing one last earful of the duo who seemed to be able to read each other’s minds.

But it was the expressions on the two women’s, as well as the cop’s, faces. They had relaxed, smoothing the wrinkles on their foreheads only to bundle them back up like folded laundry into smiles that beamed with the same serenity as Bahta’s.

The boss shook his head in confusion but slapped a hand across Skillet’s greasy back just the same as he stepped back in the door of the fish joint. Bahta came in and had a beer. The two musicians looked at one another.


“We did something.”

And this ‘something’ continued to have repercussions in Hangerville. During Skillet’s off hours, he and Bahta stalked the streets breaking up domestic disputes, scraps between children, brutal police beatings. Their music helped folk settle differences out of court, have better sex, and simply agree most of the time. Often, would-be arguments dribbled into shrugs at the sight of Bahta’s smile and fiddle or Skillet’s blackened cooking pot drum. The duo he’d formed with Bahta became less of a peacemaker and more of an art form.

Summer heat guaranteed most of the markets would be open at dawn. Men with cotton candy on sticks made early sales to children. Popcorn vendors sold ice cream on the side and everybody chained their shop doors around 2 p.m., taking three hours or so to sit in darkness, swim in the nearby river, or sleep until the late afternoon’s first breezes blew some cool into their lives. In the evening’s relief, the architecture draped over the hillsides with the confidence of a conductor, the drama of many a town fight and the intricacies of a street parade. It was old, untouched, as dingy as Havana and full of mystery.

Skillet’s intake of fish increased over the months of calm. He grew restless. His musical contributions became only the sharp clicks of his fingers on his knees, the dull thud of a hammer on the wall or the muted ping of a spoon tapping his trusted pot. Bahta, unable to find a place for long, sinuous lines of fiddle amidst this fidgety percussion, refrained from playing with him. She had never felt love, or anything like it, before. And she would have been content not to feel it, but once she and Skillet were no longer a musical duo, she felt her first pangs of loneliness, though he was right next door. Occasionally, upon hearing his door creak open, she’d pick up her fiddle and tug a few phrases, hoping he might answer with the one of the sounds they’d discovered together. She left greens from her garden at his door in a sack and once, even baked a peach pie that got eaten by dogs. He came home to crumbs and an empty plate. Yet, she knew, as long as he made the jumpy racket he was now making and put his energy into bringing back what she had always thought was the town’s worst trait, she didn’t want any part of him. And that made the hurt worse. Here was a feeling out of her control, unable to be placated with music. She knew good and well that she’d do anything he asked of her.

The lack of unnecessary town violence frustrated Skillet. He also noticed that the low humming sound he’d been sure he heard underneath every sound the town had to offer him, a sound he had captured on tape, was conspicuously absent. He even, for the first time since arriving, considered packing up once again, for who knows where. Yet he sensed a new rigidity in the town itself, a powerful stride in those bidding at the produce stand, a collective expression of determination on people coming or going from the laundry mat. Bargaining disappeared, as did bartering.

Hangerville’s history of sudden violent outbursts went hand in hand with the liveliness of its markets, the desperation of some of its inhabitants, and the humidity of its summers. Nobody seemed to think anything of it while it was abundant, nor did Skillet notice any conversations amongst groups of people welcoming its end. It appeared that the music had stopped it, but the silent nods from witnesses to every squabble the duo busted up, that pat on the back from his boss or Bahta’s rewarding smiles were as much recognition as Skillet had ever received. Unsure that his musical collaborations had truly changed a thing and not being able to leave well enough alone, Skillet decided to try to bring the town’s own sound back.

October’s crispness found him squealing like a frightened rat out in Hangerville’s main street, much to the amusement of the neighbors. He growled up and down the sidewalks, hoping just for a small scrap between a husband and wife or a playground fight from the children. He received nothing but laughter. He became a liability at work, running off what few customers there were. Even the joke peddler quit playing his tapes and started imitating Skillet’s noises before passing the hat. He earned ten dollars at the fish joint. That night, as Skillet left work, he began moaning, knowing he had nothing to lose.

Upon hearing Bahta and Skillet kneeled down in front of Skillet’s door, entrenched in an offensive new drone, Utah Zetter, owner of a nearby tailor shop, grabbed a thick birch pipe-shaped stick he’d affectionately named “The Judge.” He gave a nod to his sons and daughters, all of whom worked for him. They snatched candles encased in glass tubing with drawings of Jesus on the cross and prayers written in Spanish, from tabletops. They smashed them on the counter, turning the tubing into jagged knife points, and scurried upstairs. Folk stumbled from taverns, crawled out onto window ledges, and finally, out of apartments and houses. They armed themselves with kitchen knives, baseball bats, sticks, walking canes, rocks, eggs, tire irons, crowbars, coat hangers, hacksaws, and hot grease from restaurant kitchens. People who stayed indoors threw belongings from their windows.

Bahta wiped the coffee grinds from Skillet’s hair and gave him a hand up. As they marched from their neighborhood around the corner to town they could hear the murmur. Once they made their way to the middle of the street, they started into the low drone they’d discovered together moments ago, holding onto pitch for dear life. Bahta pulled her bow back and forth at a snail’s pace while Skillet lugged sounds from the depths of his chest, drawing a single breath and holding it for several minutes. They didn’t let go. Not even when Skillet’s leg got slashed. Not as Bahta got egged or smacked with a stick. Grease splatterings couldn’t stop them, nor could the occasional rock. Their music was a palm tree for them to hang onto during a hurricane. It was the only thing, according to Bahta, that anyone had ever stopped to take notice of. To prove her point, the snap of her fiddle as it broke in two, the twang of her string as it coiled and Skillet’s grunts, yelps, and whines, as their music ceased, got them the attention Skillet had wanted earlier. They looked past each other and waited for something, anything, to tell them what to do next.

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