Academic journal article TriQuarterly


Academic journal article TriQuarterly


Article excerpt

Beatrice and her brother lived on the very top floor of their house, in rooms that had, nearly one hundred years before, been inhabited by servants. Attached to the wall at the top of the stairs was a beautiful wooden box, with one side made of glass, and painted upon the glass, in tiny gold letters, were the names of rooms: Master Bedroom; Butler's Pantry; Dining Room; Conservatory; Loggia. Through the glass you could see a complicated system of hammers and bells and cogs, strung together with bright copper wiring, which disappeared through a hole in the bottom corner of the box and burrowed into the house's thick walls, only to emerge on the floors below, inside each of the gold-lettered rooms, in the form of a button. The finger most often pressing the button was Beatrice's, for when you pressed it, an electric current would course up the copper wiring to the top floor of the house, and a little bell inside the wooden box would ring, not a tinkling ring, but a sort of low-pitched vibration, similar to the sound people make when they're cold: Brrrrrrrrrrr.

Beatrice never got tired of hearing this sound. She liked it so much, she invented a game called Servant: she would waft into a room, drape herself across a chair and then, in a gesture both impatient and languid, poke the little button embedded in the wall. She would hear, very faintly, that low and lovely hum, and then the muffled drumbeat of her brother hurrying down the four flights of stairs. "How may I be of service, Madam?" he had to ask, according to the rules. She would tell him, "I'm dying for a glass of water. On a tray," or "Would you mind terribly, opening the curtains?" and depending upon how well he performed the tasks, a new round would begin, with Calvin climbing back up the stairs to wait beside the box, and Beatrice deciding which room she would waft into next. But this was only one of many games she had invented, and maybe not as good as Teacher, or Dead, or Blackout.

Living, as they did, at the top of the house, Beatrice and her brother were surrounded by trees. In the summer, their rooms filled with a green light. In the winter, the fir boughs grew heavy with snow and brushed against their windowpanes. Because they lived in rooms meant only for servants, their windows were small and perfectly square, not long and grand like those in the rest of the house. But they preferred it this way: they liked living in their tiny rooms, aloft in the trees; they liked the green light falling in squares at their feet. Their rooms were almost the same, but not quite: Calvin had a fireplace in his, and Beatrice had a wall of bookshelves built into hers.

Beatrice didn't read books anymore. All she did was listen to the radio. She listened late at night, to the pirate stations found at the bottom of the dial. In the place where books should have been, she kept her tremendous radio. It had once belonged to her mother, in the days when she still wore her hair long and wrote essays.

The pirate radio stations broadcast many different shows: they had names such as the Flophouse, and Nocturnal Emissions, and the Curious Sofa. Beatrice's favorite was a program called the Rock Hotel. It came on every night at eleven o'clock, and played music of the sort that Beatrice had never heard before, music that sounded at once grinding and frenzied, like a train car screeching backwards down a mountain, and all the passengers inside howling. A velvety static blanketed everything, like snow falling on the scene of the disaster. Before discovering the Rock Hotel, Beatrice had believed that music was supposed to make things more beautiful and orderly.

"That's when I reach for my revolver," she sang in the bathroom. "That's when it all just slips away."

Calvin stood outside the door. "What are you doing?" he asked.

She threw the door open and lunged forward, her hand convulsing. "I'm practicing electric guitar," she said. …

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