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Arrows in the Air
By T. R. Healy
A slight breeze stirred in the trees and, at once, Isaac held out the shotgun microphone to record the sound. It only lasted for an instant, though, and then the air was still again.
All he managed to record were a few whispery sounds, and it looked as if he might not fare any better tonight. Still he pressed on, hoping a significant gust would appear long enough so he didn’t have to return tomorrow night.
Isaac Gloden, a technician at Prairie West High School, was responsible, among other things, for making sure the audio-visual equipment was in satisfactory working order. So he was not surprised when the head of the drama department, Wallace Daines, sought his assistance for the spring production of that old warhorse Inherit the Wind. It was a play the department had staged several times during his fourteen years at the school, and this year Daines decided to do something different and add some sound effects.
“So how much wind do you want exactly?” he asked the drama teacher.
“Enough to make the audience feel they are going to see something profound about to happen.”
“You want a storm?”
“No,” he said, softly clicking his fingers. “I guess what I’m after is the sound of a storm gathering.”
“Something that grabs your attention but doesn’t overwhelm you.”
“Correct,” he said. “Something subtle like the sound of a mountain stream.”
Quietly he walked past the tennis courts, past a picnic table, past the empty wading pool. Not a person was around which didn’t surprise him because it was nearly half past ten. Just as he did last night, he came out late because he didn’t want to take the chance of any voices interfering with his recording of the wind. He wanted the park to be as quiet as a cathedral and, so far, it was; the only sounds he heard were his footsteps on the cedar chip path.
As he approached the horseshoe pit, he paused to get a sip of water at the drinking fountain. He could not believe how still the air was tonight, even more so than last night, and began to wonder if he would be able to provide any decent wind recordings for the upcoming production. If not, he might have to resort to a trick a shop teacher taught him when he was in high school and try to recreate the sound of wind by pressing a sleeve of his quilted parka against a spinning bicycle tire. He smiled as he recalled Mr. Denning cranking the pedal of an upside down ten-speed so hard it sounded as if a howling east wind had stormed into the classroom.
After crossing a rickety wooden bridge near the east end of the park, he thought he heard something and stopped and switched on the tape recorder, hoping it was a gust of wind. It wasn’t, though, rather it sounded like someone whistling. Intrigued, he continued along the cedar path, trying to make out the tune that was being whistled. And, after a few steps, he realized what it was, and immediately his face scrunched up as if he had swallowed something very bitter. It was “The Green Leaves of Summer,” a movie theme his foster father used to whistle sometimes late at night after one too many shots of bourbon. Quickly he slipped the shotgun microphone out of his backpack and held it in front of him. Eager to find out who was whistling the haunting tune, he picked up the pace a little, and as he strode around a fallen elm tree, he stumbled and stepped on a dry branch that exploded like a gunshot when it cracked.
“Damn it,” he groaned as he picked up the microphone that fell out of his hand.
He took a couple more steps before he realized the whistling had stopped then he stopped and waited for it to resume but it didn’t. So he continued on, listening for the whistler now as much as the wind. He didn’t hear either, however, and after a few more minutes he headed back to his car, knowing he would have to return to the park tomorrow night. He just hoped he could get what he needed then because he didn’t want to have to come back again.
If his wife were still around, he knew she would not approve of him being out in the park so late at night. He could almost hear her warning him about all the awful things that could happen to him. He never knew anyone who worried as much as she did, often over the most insignificant concerns, and, as a consequence, he believed she worried herself right into the long ground.
Soon after he got home, he switched on the tape recorder to see if the tune he heard being whistled was really the one Arnold used to whistle late at night. Surprisingly, though, all he heard was the slight breeze he had recorded.
Either he forgot to switch on the recorder or he didn’t point the microphone in the right direction or he imagined hearing someone whistling which he was sure was not the case. He heard someone, all right, a whistler every bit as strong and clear as his foster father.
The next night, just minutes after he arrived at the park, Isaac was able to record a strong blast of wind that lasted nearly a minute and a half. He was confident it would suit the needs of Daines’ production. Smiling, he started to pack up the microphone then changed his mind and continued to walk through the park. He headed east, curious if the whistler was back tonight. He hoped so because he wanted to record the person and, even more, to see if the person was his foster father whom he had not seen since the morning he moved out of his house nor had he spoken to anyone about him since that day. Despite how long it had been since then, he was positive he would be able to recognize him because he had never been able to get him entirely out of his mind.
Clutching the microphone in his left hand, ready in an instant to start recording the whistler, he started up a small incline toward the old bandstand when he heard someone call out his name. Immediately he stopped, his pulse racing, and spun around to see if it was Arnold.
It wasn’t, though. It was George Wren, a librarian at Prairie West, and, relieved, he lifted up the microphone in greeting. “Hello, George.”
“What are you doing out here at this time of night, Isaac?”
Briefly he told him about Daines’ request.
He chuckled. “Well, anything that can spice up the production is probably a good idea,” he said, rattling the leash of his Irish setter. “I bet he’s put that play on four or five times since I’ve been at the school.”
“That sounds about right.”
"You been out here long?”
“No, just a few minutes.”
“Doesn’t appear as if there’s going to be much wind tonight so I suspect you’ll be back out with your recording equipment tomorrow.”
He nodded. “There wasn’t much wind last night, either. About all I heard was someone whistling.”
“Maybe you heard me whistling for Garth after I took off his leash?”
“No, this person was whistling a song.”
“Well, it was definitely not me you heard then. All I can do is put two fingers together and blow and the sound I make sounds like air being let out of a tire.”
“This person was definitely an accomplished whistler,” he said, kneeling down to pat the setter on the head. “Someone good enough to enter competitions.”
“That’s not me. That’s for sure.”
“So I gather.”
Suddenly the setter started barking, and, swiftly, Wren bent over and stroked his side. “I guess I’m being told it’s time to start back to the car.”
“I guess so,” Isaac said. “It’s been nice talking with you, George.”
“Likewise, Isaac, and I hope you get what you need out here.”
“So do I.”
Arnold Fishman was a superb whistler, with an extensive repertoire of tunes that ranged from Rimsky-Korsakov to Led Zeppelin. Unlike most people, he didn’t blow air through his lips to produce a note rather he blew air between the tip of his tongue and the roof of his mouth. He tried to show Isaac how to whistle as he did, what he called “palate whistling,” but the youngster was too accustomed to puckering his lips when he whistled and never was able to master the other technique. Arnold didn’t seem too disappointed because he knew what he did was pretty esoteric.
“What matters is that you can produce a tune,” he told him after another failed attempt to teach him how to use his palate, “and that you can do. Not very well, maybe, but well enough that folks can recognize what you’re whistling.”
Arnold was so accomplished that he entered whistling competitions across the state and seldom finished worse than third. Three shelves in his den displayed some of the trophies and medals and ribbons he won through the years. And on the top shelf was a framed newspaper article about what he regarded as his finest performance. He had just dropped off his wife at the train station when he heard a woman cry out that her purse had been snatched and, without the slightest hesitation, he began whistling the theme from the “Lone Ranger” television series--the William Tell Overture—which apparently so rattled the thief he dropped the purse and fled into the crowd.
He was considered not only one of the best whistlers in town but one of the best in the entire region. It was not by accident, either, because he practiced diligently, whistling at least an hour a day, and often sucked on ice cubes to keep his throat moist. Numerous times Isaac watched him perform the national anthem before high school and college football and baseball games and always cheered as loudly as anyone when he finished. He was proud of his foster father on such occasions, indeed felt privileged to live in his home.
These feelings were the exception, however, because most of the time he felt like an intruder, only in his home because of the money Arnold earned for being a foster parent. Often rude and abrasive, the man was one of the orneriest people Isaac ever met who, for no discernible reason, liked to grab one of his ears and twist it until the youngster asked him to stop then he would laugh and pat him on the head as if he intended no harm.
Until one night, he always stopped twisting his ears when Isaac asked him to but after that night he didn’t stop until the boy started to cry. That was the night that he won his fifth state championship, and he was so elated he knocked back several more shots of bourbon than he usually did after a competition. As he often did when he drank too much, he reminisced about his childhood, always adamant that Isaac never had to endure the hardships he faced when he was his age. Methodically he recounted one grievance after another, all of which Isaac had heard many times before, then he talked about the death of his only brother, Lenny, whom he rarely mentioned.
“You know, Isaac, I’m responsible.”
“I caused him to fall off the roof of the apartment building where we lived.”
The youngster did not say anything he was so stunned by the revelation.
“We were playing dodge ball and I got angry because he hit my sore knee and I threw the ball back at him as hard as I could and hit him on the side of the head and he lost his balance and fell.”
“You’re goddamn right it’s terrible, and it was all my fault, but instead of telling my parents what I did, I lied and said my brother fell all on his own.”
“I’m sorry, Arnold.”
“Sorry? What the hell do you have to be sorry about?”
Nodding in silence, he looked away as his foster father poured another shot of bourbon.
The next morning, soon after Isaac got up to shower, Arnold entered his bedroom without knocking. Still in the mint-striped dress shirt he wore at the whistling competition, he appeared as if he had been up all night. His eyes were puffy and ringed with dark circles.
“I know I had too much to drink last night and, as a result, I said some things I probably shouldn’t have,” he admitted, tapping his left thumb against his chin. “I hope you realize that.”
“And I hope you won’t repeat what I said about my brother. That was the bourbon talking, not me.”
He stared at the youngster for a long moment then, bowing his head, stepped out of the room.
Isaac assumed, after the brief conversation, Arnold would be easier on him but he was mistaken because his foster father was even more truculent. He shouted at him all the time, never satisfied with anything he did. Sometimes he twisted his ears so hard it seemed as if he wanted to twist them right off. His wife, as ever, was oblivious to the harsh treatment the youngster received and never once asked her husband to let up a little on him. Things would never get better, only worse, Isaac reckoned, because Arnold couldn’t bear the thought that someone else, someone other than his wife, knew he was responsible for the death of his brother. It was a secret he never intended to reveal but because he had too much to drink he did, and though he hoped Isaac did not believe what he told him, he was sure he did. And now whenever he looked at him he was reminded of what happened that afternoon on the roof.
In time, Isaac began to worry that Arnold might not be able to control his temper and do to him what he did to his brother. So late one night, when his foster parents were asleep, he snuck out of the house and never returned. He had enough money to buy a bus ticket to San Francisco to visit a second cousin who didn’t appear too pleased to see him but agreed to let him stay with her for a while. Three weeks later, the day after he turned eighteen, he enlisted in the Army where he worked in the motor pool as a mechanic for five and a half years.
Isaac started to take a sip of water from the drinking fountain at the east end of the park when a brisk gust of wind brushed the left side of his face. He didn’t switch on the tape recorder, though, because he was confident he had enough wind recordings for the spring production. He was at the park tonight, as he had been the past eight nights, in the hope of recording the whistler he heard the previous week. So far, all he heard this evening was someone blowing a referee’s whistle to call a dog. Edging past a rain puddle that gleamed in the moonlight, he knew he really was out here to see if the person he heard whistling was Arnold. He thought it unlikely but he couldn’t deny how much the person sounded like his former foster father, even the tune was one that Arnold often performed in competitions.
He hadn’t seen the dreadful man since the day he left his home and wondered if he would recognize him after all the weight he had gained. He suspected his belly was close to his size now, maybe even bigger, and his hair almost as thin. Now they might even be thought to be actually related to one another. He was not sure what he would say to him but suspected he would be tempted to twist his ears as hard as he could and not stop until there were tears in the bastard’s eyes. He just didn’t know if he could resist the temptation which was why he hoped the whistler was Arnold so he could find out what he’d do otherwise he had no idea.
If he didn’t hear him tonight, he was sure he would return tomorrow night and the night after that until he was convinced he never really heard what he thought he heard.