The Vinyl Canal
IT STARTED WITH 1999. Ben scratched his copywhen he dropped it on his bathroom floor. I don't know why he took 1999 into the bathroom. He said the scratch ruined "Let's Pretend We're Married," took the third minute "out at the knees." The song didn't repeat itself, like on a classic broken record. It stumbled over the best parts, skip ping across where Prince says, "C'mon baby, let's ball."
Ben didn't like that. 1999 wasn't his favorite record, he made sure to tell me, but this newdamage mattered. He thought if a song didn't work he ought to bypass it completely.
"I've never pretended I was married," I said. "Not to anyone." I wanted to see what Ben would say to that.
He said, "You can't skip a song on a record, like you can with a CD-it's theone advantage a CD has over a record."
I didn't care about the CD advantage, and I didn't know why I was talking to Ben. I usually avoid guys like him, who never smile, who don't walk so much as plunge forward, who I can't picture, for the life of me, anywhere in ten years. He had a mustache, which I like to keep my distance from, and he was the sort of person who doesn't seem to be aware that there are other people around, even when he's talking to them.
I don't know why I still live in a town full ofguys like Ben. Maybe every town is full of them.
Three years ago, I graduated from college, the same college that's responsible for keeping our little town on life support. Instead of leaving when I graduated, like I thought I would, I got a job at the Amazon warehouse, and when I'm not working there I'm usually drinking coffee. It's howI end up talking to guys like Ben.
I knew him just well enough to drink coffee with him at Prague's, the coffeehouse where we ran into each other. He used to be a friend of a friend, but that's not what he was anymore. I didn't know what he was anymore, except Ben.
He said, "I took an X-Acto knife and etched a gash into the first track of side two of record one of 1999."
"You etched a gash."
"I don't like to think of it as a gash," he said. "It's more like I was installing an elevator, something to take me not along each individual groove to the record's middle, but on one long groove, and fast. Like a canal."
I asked Ben what it sounded like. He said the wayitwent through the song was jerky. The record just sounded broken. "It doesn't matter," he said. "I didn't like that song much."
Ben was someone who could not determine when the person he was talking to was less interested in what he was talking about than he was. "I watched the way the needle moved along the canal," he said. "I saw that when I dug the next one, I would need to be more of an artisan with the X-Acto. I'd have to make the canal curve, rather than plow through the song in a straight line. If I wanted a smoother transition, I mean."
"And you did."
"I thought I could do it without sacrificing speed, without adding more than a second to a record's total playtime-adjusting for the whole song I took out of it."
It was Ben's good fortune to have an extra copy of Blue Oyster Cult's Agents of Fortune at his apartment. He'd found it in a dollar bin in Columbus some months prior, he said, and bought it because it didn't seem right to leave a good copy in the dollar bin unbought.
"Both, I guess."
"Yeah, well, you're funny," she said. "But you look different in person."
"Well, my personality is really large on stage, and I look bigger, I think. But I'm kind of shy in person, so I think I might seem to be smaller."
"Oh, no, I meant your gut. I didn't realize you had such a fat gut until just now."
That black man always wears a silver combat hat. He uses a wheelchair, but I've seen him walking, too. I see him two or three times a week near my gym. He mostly ignores me. But yesterday, when I wore a pink shirt, he noticed me.
"Hey, you," he said. "Hey, what?" I asked.
"You look like half-a-fag in that shirt."
Two years ago, when my hair was long, he also noticed me. "Hey, you," he'd said.
"Hey, what?" I asked.
"With that long hair, you look like a fag."
From folly fag to half-a-fag in only two years. I guess I'm making progress.
On Greenwood, I walked past three homeless Indians, two men and one woman. Feeling ethnic guilt, I stopped, turned around, and tried to bond.
"Hey, cousins," I said.
"What tribes are you?" I asked. 'Tm Inuit," man #1 said.
'Tm Lakota," man #2 said.
"I'm from the Eat My Pussy tribe," the woman said. She turned around and bent over. "So eat my pussy."
"It got me thinking. I've got just over 670 records, and at least 600 of them have parts I don't like listening to. So I went to Ace Hardware for some better etching supplies. I didn't tell them what I was etching. I went home and took 'Fluff' out of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath."
"I didn't know that had fluff," I said.
"The song's called 'Fluff.' I took 'A Man Needs a Maid' out of
Harvest, and 'The Weight' from Music from Big Pink.''
"Isn't that the song people like?"
"I've heard it so many times," said Ben. "It doesn't sound good to me anymore. And I said So is a perfect album, but it shed seven pounds when I removed 'We Do What We're Told.'"
Why seven pounds? I wondered.
Ben also dug a canal, he said, that started at the middle of a song on Wish You Were Here and ended somewhere in the middle of the next song. "When I listened to it again, I couldn't even tell there was a canal there. Fucking Pink Floyd," he said. "I haven't gotten around to it yet, but I want to dig a canal from the start to the end of both sides of Bob Dylan's Shot of Love.''
"It'd be a much better record.
"I didn't touch The Low End Theory, though," Ben added, seem ing to want to reassure me. "I didn't touch How I Got Over or Return to Cookie Mountain."
I didn't know what he was talking about anymore.
We were silent and it wasuncomfortable. There were a lot of people around, mostly our age, and they were working on things on their computers.
Ben said he kept thinking about the Vinyl Canal.
"It's not just made of vinyl," he said. "It's not just what I did to certain records to make them more listenable. It's all around us. It preceded us by thousands of years.''
Ben went to get a refill. I considered leaving, to avoid hearing what he would say next. I'd spent enough of my life listening to weird men talk about things that matter to them but that don't really matter at all.
How much more of my life would I spend doing that, sitting patiently while someone like Ben told me all about something that really meant something-to him?
How much longer would it be before I had a man living inside my head, droning on about records, or traffic, or the independent comedy scene, or the independent literature scene, or the independent scenery scene, whenever there wasn't a real man around to do it? How long before I had a man living in myapartment, who would serve the same purpose?
I could have just left. But I wasn't done with my coffee, and it had cost three dollars. And I was supposed to meet my friend Megan there in less than ten minutes. So, whatever.
When Ben returned, he said, "It got me thinking, about how the Vinyl Canal is more than just what I did with my records. It's bigger than that. It's whenever someone tries to bypass something he doesn't want to face."
"Isn't that a shortcut?"
"No," he said. ''A shortcut's already there. You don't make it, you take it.
"The Vinyl Canal is when you go out of your way to try to make something easier, but instead you cause yourself a lot more trouble than you would have had if you'd left it alone. It's like when the legislature cut funding to the library, so it wouldn't stay open hardly at all, and the people couldn't make themselves smarter. They cut the hours to keep everybody stupid. It must have been hard work to make that happen. There must have been arguments, with library people pushing back."
"You mean librarians?" "Yeah, and library customers." "Patrons?"
"It was a way to make people stagnate, and they didn't have to poison any reservoirs. They did it by digging a canal through things that were important to people, the way I dug a canal through 'Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,' on Neko Case's The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You."
"You should have dug a canal through that long-ass album title."
"Or the way they diverted the water supply in Flint, Michigan, and poisoned all those children. That was the Vinyl Canal. And it was the Vinyl Canal when the Bush administration promoted intelligence they knew was faulty to justify invading Iraq."
I wanted to tell Ben to slow down. His face and voice had grown red and intense. He seemed to be out of breath when he slurped his coffee. It was like he was trying to dig a canal through the table with his words.
"The Vinyl Canal," he said, leaning forward, "was the tape they put over the lock to the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. It was when they erased the tape from Richard Nixon's Oval Office recordings. And it's shock therapy, too."
"It takes a lot of work to shock the shit out of somebody's mind. It causes so much pain, and makes you need more treatment later that maybe actually works."
Surely, I thought, Ben was not a victim of shock therapy.
He was quiet now, looking not at me but above my head, at an amateur portrait of Joan Crawford.
"I guess," I said, "the Vinyl Canal was my parents staying together for the sake of their kids, instead of getting divorced."
"It was supposed to make our lives easier. It meant a lot more work for them, though. And I fucking hated it."
"That sounds about right," said Ben. ''And it was when Jane left me, because she thought it'd be easier to do that than to try to make things work."
"I don't mean," said Ben, "to compare Jane leaving me with the war in Iraq. She had much better reasons to leave than the U.S. had to invade Iraq.
"She didn't like how much money I spent on records. That was fair. I don't spend that much on them, but if you don't like records it seems like a lot."
"If Saddam Hussein had spent too much money on records," I said, "that would have been a better reason to invade Iraq than the reasons we had for going in."
"Oh," said Ben. "I forgot to mention I dug a canal through 'Beside You,' on Astral Weeks."
I was looking at a woman at another table I'd made out with once, when Ben said, "Wait a minute. The police. That's a big one."
"Did you want to canal that record?" "Not those Police. The real police." "Not the Dream Police?"
Ben looked around and looked back at me. "Please don't tell any- one about this," he said.
"About what?" "Just don't. Please."
"Who would I tell?"
"I don't want anyone else to take credit for discovering this." Holy shit, I thought.
"I have to go," he said. And he went.
WHEN MEGAN ARRIVED, we talked about Ben. I hadn't seen Megan in a while, and I didn't really want to talk about Ben, but he had just spent fifteen minutes telling me about something that made no sense.
"That guy's weird," Megan said. "I know," I said.
"He's so twitchy," Megan said. "And weird," I said.
I knew it was unfair, but I felt Megan ought to take some respon sibility for how weird Ben was. Or, anyway, for my having had to be a partof his weird life for so long. She was the one who had introduced us, some months prior, at the same table where the woman I'd made out with was now sitting with another woman. She kept looking at me and smiling faintly-remembering, perhaps, and reminding me with her faint smile, how we had made out but then not talked about it or to each other since, which I thought was dumb. Maybe she thought it was dumb, too.
I'd never made out with a woman before she kissed me.
Megan knew Ben much better than I did, but she was acting like we were weirded out by him equally. It wasn't fair.
Still, when Ben contacted me via Facebook, a week later, to ask if I would join him on a local radio show to talk about the Vinyl Canal, I didn't want to say yes, at least not at first. But saying no didn't appeal to me, either.
Four hours after asking me to go on the radio with him, he wrote to ask again.
If someone other than Ben had done that I would have thought
he was trying to sleep with me, or kill me, but I knew Ben didn't want me for sex or murder. He was harmless. So I went.
THE SHOW WAS CALLED Here We Are Now. It was a call-in show that ran from nine to midnight on Thursday nights at the col lege radio station. Callers would ask, mostly, what the host, D-Day, thought of things, like bands and current events. He would tell them what he thought. He played music, and there were theme nights. Sometimes he wanted people to call the show if they didn't have an appendix. One time, all the callers had to not have any brothers or sisters. It was the show I paid the most attention to, because I don't have any brothers or sisters, except in the sense thatwe areallbrothers and sisters.
I met Ben at the radio studio's lobby. There were a couple of chairs and a couch, and in the other room was D-Day, talking to our little college town about what was on his mind.
Benwas in one of the chairs when I arrived. He had some records with him. "You're ready for this, right?" he said.
"Yeah," I said, shrugging in my olive-green jacket, sensing that no matter how ready I was, I would never be as ready as Ben was, for anything.
"You remember what I said about the Vinyl Canal?" "Yes," I said.
"I just want to make sure we're on the same page." "It's just a radio show," I said.
"And you're up to the challenge?"
"I used to be a DJ, Ben. This isn't a challenge." "You were on college radio, though, right?" "Ben," I said. "This is college radio."
"The Vinyl Canal," said Ben, once we were on the air, "is when ever someone makes a serious effort to make their lives easier, usually at the expense of other people, or a principle, but it ends up requiring more work to dig the canal than it would have been to leave things as they were, pre-canal."
"But you said this was something you were doingwith your record collection," said D- Day.
"That's right. Like with Astral Weeks."
"What'd you do to that?"
"I dug 'Beside You' out of it. I made a groove right through the song that's just deep enough so the needle will travel past the song without playing it."
"Good call," said Caroline, D-Day's sidekick. She was nodding and taking a drink. "But," she said, "isn't the Vinyl Canal supposed to damage other people's lives? It sounds like you're damaging your own life. And your records."
"I'm not damaging them," said Ben. "Have you tried listening to
Songs of the Wood in its entirety?" "No."
"It's really terrible," I said. I had never heard Songs of the Wood. I didn't even know what band was responsible for Songs of the Wood. From the title, I thought it was probably Jethro Tull.
"But it doesn't have to be harmful to people, necessarily," said Ben. "The Vinyl Canal can be dug at the expense of a principle."
"How is what you're doing at the expense of a principle?"
"Okay. For starters, it's not what the artists who made the records intended. I've been violating their intentions, big time. But the important thing is that it takes a lot more work to carve lines into records than it does to listen to the parts of them you don't like."
"And that's why it's the Vinyl Canal." "Exactly."
I took a drink of water. Caroline nodded and looked at me with her lips pursed.
"The thing with the records, though," said Ben, "is small-time. It's really nothing, compared to what the police are doing, day in and day out."
"I didn't know they got back together."
"Not those Police," Ben said. "Police officers. They violate people's rights constantly, for the sake of expediency, to make their jobs easier." "That's a pretty bigleap, isn't it?"said D-Day, who was rightabout
it being a leap. "To go from Astral Weeks to police harassment?" "You seem to be taking this seriously," said Caroline.
"I am," said Ben. "I do." None of the listeners could see how serious he looked, but D-Dayand Caroline could. I watched Caroline glance at D-Day, then look at Ben, and I thought, oh, no.
"Why are you so worked up about this?" said Caroline, and the way she said it told me that she meant to put herself at a substantial distance from Ben and his enthusiasm. Which wasfair. But I could also sense that she wasabout to start making Ben sound like a freak.
Which he was. But still.
"I'm actually pretty amped about it, myself," I said.
I wasn't supposed to be talking. When I was introduced, Ben had interjected that I was "just along for the ride," and as soon as I spoke he frowned at me.
I said, "My own Vinyl Canal is online shopping." "It is?" said D-Day.
"I shop for clothes and things online to save myself the trouble of going to the store. But the images of the clothes are so small. I can't see what they really look like. I can't touch them. I end up going to a store, after all. It's a waste of time."
Caroline took a big drinkofwhatever she was drinking out of her Klean Kanteen. I wished it were poison.
"That's a really good example," said Ben, when no one else said anything.
"Okay," said D-Day. "So it's like when Obama wanted to make healthcare more accessible, but instead of going single-payer he engi neered a convoluted thing that's not as good for people."
"Yeah," I said. "Sure," said Ben.
I have moments when I'm not certain if I am or am not having racist thoughts. When D-Day criticized Obama, I felt weird about it, because D-Day is black, and I couldn't help thinking, just for a second, that it wasmessed up for him as a black man to criticize our first black president.
Of course, D-Day can say what he wants. He's not betraying any one. It isn't good that I think things like that.
I don't think it was a microaggression, though, because I kept it inside.
THE FIRST CALLER was a young-sounding man who told D-Day he'd been too soft in a previous show on the issue of space tourism. "Don't you think it's a real problem?" he said. D-Day rolled his eyes at Caroline as the young man said they were filling space with space junk, and that every ship that orbited Earth for recreation left manu factured debris that had nobusiness being there. D-Day said, "Space has a whole lot more debris in it already than what the tourists are leaving up there. It's called planets."
Ben nodded vigorously.
The next caller seemed to have paid attention to the conversation we'd beenbroadcasting. "It sounds to me," she said, "that what you're talking about is a lifehack."
"It does sound like that," said Caroline, smiling at Ben with the corners of her mouth. Or its edges, maybe. Mouths don't have corners. "This is different from a lifehack," said Ben. ''A lifehack makes your life easier. This makes it more complicated. It's the Vinyl Canal." The next caller had a different problem. I don't know how to describe his voice, or any voice, really. All I can say is he sounded
large and angry.
"I want to address something the second lady said," he said. "Do you mean me?" said Caroline.
"No," he said. "The other girl. Who thinks online shopping is an inconvenience? I have never heard anything so ridiculous in my life."
There was a brief silence. "Okay," said D-Day, looking at me, as if to make sure I was okay.
I was fine.
"I don't see how anyone can say that," said the man on the phone.
Everyone was looking at me. "I don't really know what I can add to what I said already," I said.
"If you have such a problem with shopping online," the man said, "then why don't you not do it? Why not just not do it and let other people enjoy their lives?"
I said, "I didn't say anything about other people not enjoying life." "That's a good thing. I intend to keep shopping online, because
I find it's very convenient. I am in a wheelchair. Many stores in this
area choose not to accommodate me."
Had this been my show, I would have hung up on the man before he could say that and moved on.
"What kinds of things do you buy online?" asked Caroline. "Shotgun shells."
"Thanks for the call," said D-Day.
The next caller was also angry, but sounded like maybe he hadn't been angry for as long as the previous caller. Like he had onlygotten angry that day. "It was that statement your guest read about online shopping," he said. I looked at Ben, but he wasn't looking at me. "I am tired," said the caller, "of people who want to badmouth and trash the internet but use it all the time for everything. The internet's brought us so many things. I think it's easy for some people to take it for granted."
"I didn't say anything about hating the internet," I said. "I just have trouble with shopping online sometimes. The images are too small. Especially on my phone."
The next caller asked what kind of clothes I'd been shopping for, and I told him, "Regular clothes." I didn't want to give him any personal information. He said, "What I really wanted to call about was, you said something about the internet that was ridiculous. I think you said it was overrated? Microaggressions like that don't belong on a college radio station, which is funded by my tax dollars. 1'11 take my response off the air."
D-Daywent immediately to a station identification.
During it, Ben put his hand over the mic in front of his face, which he didn't need to do, as it had been switched off for the moment, and said, "Do you think you could talk less?"
"Less?" I said. "I've barely said anything."
"I want to try to stay focused," said Ben, "on the Vinyl Canal."
D-DAY CAME BACK from the station break and announced that we'd now hear one of Ben's records with the Vinyl Canal dug through it-Let It Be, by The Beatles.
Ben explained to me, as the song played, and Caroline and D-Day talked with oneanother without acknowledging us, which I thought was rude, that he'd taken "Let It Be" out of Let It Be. He told me why, but I didn't listen.
Nor did I listen to the songs. I browsed the selection of scarves at Scarves.net on my phone. One of the songs played, then there was static, and then another song played. I felt certain I'd heard both songs before, but I couldn't have said what they were. That's how I feel about nearly all songs by The Beatles.
Ben was grinning when D-Day resumed taking calls. He looked proud.
He wasn't grinning or looking proud when the next caller came on the air and said he couldn't believe what Ben had done to Let It Be. "How could you do that?" he said. "That's one of the classic songs." Ben stammered. A radio Prometheus, he had not expected an outraged response to his great gift to the small town we lived in. He
I wasn't stunned. I said, "Something I think we can all agree on is that when my friend Ben hears an overrated song he will not let it be."
No one in the studio was amused.
I was amused, when the next caller called in to say that he thought what Ben had done was copyright violation.
"It is not," said Caroline. "I've been studying this in law school.
The records are Ben's. He can do what he wants."
"It may not be what the artists intended," added Ben, "but I'm not reselling the records. That would be a problem."
The next caller wanted to talk more about what I'd said earlier about shopping. "I don't think that girl knows what she's talking about," said the man.
Is it the same man calling in, I wondered, pretending to be different men? What was going on?
D-Day hung up on that caller. He said, "I've got another Vinyl Canal. Smartphones. They're supposed to make life easier, they're supposed to help me get in touch with people. But I don't even use the phone to make calls. To get someone's attention, I go through Facebook."
"It's also like scraping ice off your windshield," said Caroline, "in the wintertime."
"How so?" asked D-Day, who looked intrigued.
"Yeah, how so?" asked a caller who I hadn't realized was on the line.
"Well," said Caroline, "you can just turn up the heat in your car, and get warm yourself while the car warms up. The ice is gonna melt if you do that. You don't have to do all that scraping. It creates more work and wears your body out."
"I can see it," said D-Day, and I thought, they must be fucking.
That's the only way he would agree with what she'd just said. "It's also police violence," said Ben. "To get back to that."
Here it comes, I thought. The moment no one has been waiting for.
"The police need to keep us in our places," Ben said. "They need to keep their boots on our throats. But instead of doing it in a way that's slow or that means they need to get out of their cars and talk to people, walk a beat and get to know a neighborhood, they just shoot people. And Taser them, and beat them. And it ends up causing more problems in the long run, which isn't what the police intend. It's going to unite the public against them. People won't just take it forever."
Ben swallowed a couple of times. It was unclear if he was going to say more.
I saw how necessary it was that he not say more.
Maybe most police, nationwide, are great people who are just misunderstood. But the cops in our little town are a bunch of small time fascists. They shot my friend Elizabeth with a Taser when all she had done wrong was ask why she got pulled over. They shot a
guy's dog when they raided his house for drugs. It turned out to be the wrong house.
I've heard that some of our local cops are serial rapists.
Maybe they're not, but I felt I had to intervene on Ben's behalf, to save him from them, in case they were listening, or in case they heard about what he'd said live on the radio and came seeking retribution. I said, "The Vinyl Canal is also when I go out with guys and it turns out they hate women, like, all women all together. But they don't do it in a straightforward way. Maybe they don't even know they hate women. They just say crappy things and act like they're in
a porno half the time."
Ben had his hand on his face as I spoke.
I'd said what I said to save Ben, though to save him from-what? Police retaliation? Maybe. Definitely to save him from having to defend what he'd said to the radio trolls, who then called, one after another, not to tell Ben he was wrong about the police, but to say I was wrong to say what I had said, that menweren't really like that, or that not all men were, and anyway I should move to a different country if I didn't like the way things were.
It was all anyone wanted to talk about anymore. A man called in to say I should try going out with nice guys.
Like I didn't know better than to fall for that.
A woman called in to suggest I stop dating guys. I think it was the woman I'd made out with, the one I saw at Prague's. She may have recognized my voice on the air and decided to call in.
Another man called to say I should "look into getting [my] pussy stapled shut."
That was the end of Ben's and my appearance on the radio, and I wondered if it was the end of D-Day's college radio career.
D-Day thanked us for being on his show, and said we'd hear side A of Dark Side of the Moon as the show came to a close.
The only song the listeners heard was "Time." Ben had Vinyl Canaled all the other songs, to make the record better.
Ben didn't take his eyes off the floor as we left the building. We didn't speak until we were out of there, but when we were I asked Ben how he thought it had gone.
"I didn't like that Caroline," he said.
"I know," I said. ''At first I felt bad for feeling like that. Then she said she was a law student, and I was like, I don't feel bad anymore."
"Well," said Ben. "Right," I said.
"Why did you have to say that-about men?" said Ben. He looked hurt. Not like he was going to cry; not angry; just hurt.
I sighed. "I don't know," I said. "I guess I got carried away." I could have told him what kind of backlash I had probably saved him from. "But listen," I said. "People heard you. You got your message out. You got to say what you wanted to say. Right?"
"I guess I did," he said.
"I mean, I don't think it'll be the end of police violence." "No. But it helps advance the conversation."
"Sure it does."
"Well," said Ben, looking away already. "See you later."
He was gone before I even said goodbye. It was Ben's way. He meant nothing by being so abrupt.
As I walked to my car, I texted Megan to ask if she thought there were always trolls or if they came into being thanks to the internet.
She said she didn't know.
On my drive home, I went through a residential neighborhood, to avoid downtown, where there was usually traffic at night. But there was a high school event letting out just then, and it took me fifteen minutes longer to get home than it would have had I gone through downtown.
I DIDN'T THINK ABOUT BEN after his appearance on Here We Are Now. Our appearance. I listened to a couple later shows, in the weeks that followed. It came on as I sat reading computer drivel, and I half-listened for some reference that never came to what Ben had said when we were on, or something I'd said.
Three months later, Megan said something about Ben. We had been talking about her job, or she'd been talking about her job. I don't have that much to say about her job, except that she doesn't like it. She said, "You heard Ben got arrested."
I hadn't heard.
"It was in the newspaper," she said. "His photo, too." That meant the police had used a Taser on Ben.
It's something they do in our town that I've never understood: when the cops use a Taser on someone, that person's mugshot appears in the newspaper. It's a form of public humiliation, I guess.
It's not the only form. When people are arrested, the police like to take them to their court appearances across a certain stretch of downtown. They park the van half a block away so that when the men and women climb out to walk the fifty feet to the courthouse, the whole town will see them in their orange jumpsuits.
They must have done that to Ben. He must have drooped his head so that hishair hung and blocked his eyes and his profile. It was what he had done when he got perturbed on Here We Are Now.
"What did he do?" I asked. "What do you mean?"
"To get arrested."
"Oh. I'm not sure. I didn't read the article."
I exhaled. This was news, but it wasn't big news. People get arrested.
We talked a while about another friend and a problem she was
having with her landlord. Then, when Megan was gone, I looked up the newspaper's website. There was Ben's photo.
He looked bad, like his face had been scraped against the side walk, or he had spent the night rubbing his face against sandpaper in his sleep.
The article said he'd resisted arrest. It didn't say what he was being arrested for when he resisted. It was a short article, about twenty words.
After a few seconds, I realized I wasn't breathing.
Ben hadn't resisted arrest. Ben wasn't the type to resist much of anything, let alone arrest.
I saw Julian across the room. He wasn't reading or talking to anyone. I don't think he has a computer. It's not for a good reason; he's just a trainwreck. I don't like him, but I knew he'd been arrested and would know what I wanted to know. He's kind of a Neanderthal, with a face like a disappointed caveman.
"Julian," I said. "What?" he said.
"How do you visit someone in prison?" "What?"
"When someone gets arrested," I said. "Where do you go if you want to see them at the prison?"
"They don't go to prison when they're arrested. That's for if you get sentenced. You mean jail."
"It's like a fucking day camp. It's just bunk beds and guys jacking
"All right." "It is."
"Well, where is it?" "Route 10. West."
Fucking Julian. What he didn't tell me was that it's thirty miles outside of town. I should have just looked it up, but I'm at a point in my life that I'm tired of the internet, and if I can ask someone in person a question I'll do it, even if it'sJulian.
It turned out I couldn't just show up at the jail and see someone there. I had to make an appointment twenty-four hours in advance. So that waswhat I did.
But when I went back for the visit, the following day, calling in sick at the warehouse, Ben wasn't there anymore. He'd been released. They couldn't tell me where he had gone. "We stop keeping tabs on them," said the guard, in a voice that made me feel dumb, "once they leave here."
I LOST TRACK OF HIM and his ordeal, whatever it was, for a while. I had my own problems, or, not problems, but the opposite of problems. I'd started seeing the woman I mentioned kissing before. I ran into her at a bar, and one thing led to another. It had nothing to do with Ben and the Vinyl Canal. It was great.
The only thing I don't like about her-her name's Ann-is that she does yoga to an audiobook, and the woman reading it sounds like Courtney Love reading Kurt Cobain's suicide note on MTV. She
isn't crying quite like Ms. Love did, but she sounds like she's about to, like she is the Saddest Yoga Teacher in the World. Like she's practicing Sorrow Yoga. I can't be in the room when it's on, which isn't a problem, because Ann and I don't live together. We haven't moved that fast.
We've moved pretty fast.
Probably a month went slinking past without a word about Ben. Whenever I saw Megan I expected to hear something, but I heard nothing. When I drove past the courtroom at the right hour, when the recently arrested were paraded in orange through the center of town, to be brought before the judge and the silent consternation of a mostly oblivious public, I looked to see if Ben was among them, to see if he'd been captured again. I didn't see him. I didn't expect to. I'm not sure what I was looking for.
I ASKED MEGAN, ONCE, "Have you seen Ben?" She shook her head. "That's so strange," I said.
"The way he disappeared. I haven't seen him since he got arrested." "I didn't know you saw him much before he got arrested."
I sighed and sipped my coffee. "It's just," I said, "what he said on the radio about police violence." Megan looked away, then back at me, confused. "This is a small town," I said. "What if they retaliated?"
"Because of something Ben said on the radio?" "Yeah."
"I don't know, Jill," said Megan. "It seems like, if they retaliated
against Ben for doing anything, it would be for the way he resisted arrest."
"I don't think he did that, though," I said. Megan made a face. "You don't?"
I didn't think he had. But I didn't know.
I knew almost nothing about Ben. I wasn't friends with him on social media anymore. He wasn't on social media anymore.
SIX MONTHS WENT BY before I saw another sign of Ben.
It was like seeing the ghost of Ben, only Ben wasn't dead. I mean, he probably wasn't dead. I was at the bar Ann likes to go to, a music venue that's filthy and not my scene. It's Ann's scene. Ann is my scene. It's the kind of place Julian goes, the kind of place where one wall is covered with flyers for shows that have happened or that will happen. I was on my way in, trailing behind Ann, who likes to go first, when I saw a flyer that was a black and white photo of Ben's face. Only it wasn't his face as I knew it; his left eye was swollen shut and his mouth looked like someone had sewn his lips together. It
wasn't a good photo.
I thought I wasn't seeing it right. Of course his mouth isn't sewn shut, I thought. How could he eat? But there was something about the way his lips were pursed that made me think, my god, his lips are sewn shut.
The flyer was for a band called The Mud. Their show had been three weeks prior, on a night when I was out of town.
I asked some people there about The Mud, but no one had seen them. They hadn't even played. Mark spent ten minutes telling me how often bands will do that-plan a show and cancel it without taking down their flyers. It really seemed to bother him.
I WENT TO A PARTY where I thought I saw Ben. It was someone else. Before he disappeared, I would have thought it was a good thing,
that it wasn't Ben.
Megan was at the party. "What do you think happened to Ben, anyway?" I asked her.
"Ben Volpe?" Megan laughed. "I haven't thought about him in months."
Megan resumed asking me about Ann. I answered her questions, but my mind was somewhere else.
I REALIZE NOW that my desire to know the fate of Ben has nothing to do with Ben. I still don't know what I would say to him if I saw
him-probably nothing. I still don't want to be his friend, or a close acquaintance. But if he didn't just leave town because he wanted to, if he left because he had to, or if he's still around but not in a way I would recognize, then the possible explanations for that are not numerous.
If he left town, without warning or with it, it wouldn't mean something good had happened, that he'd had a revelation and seen how he was stagnating and had to rethink life. I know guys like Ben, and that kind of self-recognition isn't something they're subject to.
It would mean something bad had happened. There aren't many
kinds of bad things that can happen in our town. Most of them involve the police.
I can't say I ever felt good about the police. I knew I would call them ifI were stabbed, but when I saw one at Prague's, getting take out coffee, or a patrol car driving past, I didn't feel safer than I did when they weren't around.
Now that Ben was gone, I felt downright imperiled when they were near. If they knew who he was when he said what he said on the radio, and had made him pay for it, then maybe they knew who I was, too, and knew that I had sat beside him as he spoke.
I had gone to see him at the jail. Had that mattered? Did they know my name?
I thought many times of going to ask after Ben at the police station. Surely they would know where he had been at some time. I thought better of it, every time, and didn't know if what I was think ing made any sense.
I TOLD ANN ABOUT BEN.
I didn't need to tell her much. She had heard Ben on the radio. She had been the woman who called in, after a11. She didn't know Ben, but she wasn't alarmed to hear that he'd gone.
"You don't know men," she said. "Not like you think you do. You think it's weird that a guy would just pick up and leave? No. Remember the town you're in. This place gets smaller the longer you're here. A lot of people-men especially-can't handle that."
Ann doesn't always know what she's talking about, but she's someone who always sounds like she knows what she's talking about. A lot of people can't tell the difference, which is her magic.
I can tell the difference. I knew she was just talking. Even if she knows men like she said she does, she didn't know Ben.
But it was what I needed to hear. What I wanted to hear. Ben seemed to have gone, but it didn't mean a thing, not necessarily.
ANN LIKES RECORDS. She has hundreds, most of them by bands I've never heard of. She is eager always to introduce me to them. I am not so eager to be introduced. But whatever.
When a new record store opened in town, Ann was overjoyed. She took me there the day it opened and got lost among the rows of vinyl by bands I'd never heard of. I'd heard of Sam Cooke, but they didn't have any Sam Cooke. I'd heard of Joni Mitchell.
I wandered until I found the dollar bin. I looked through it to find a lot of Barbra Streisand and Engelbert Humperdinck.
Beside the dollar bin was an as-is bin, where records cost only twenty-five cents. In there I found some Jethro Tull and TomJones not them performing together, but different records-then more Barbra, and then Tom Waits, The Beatles, James Brown and Blue Oyster Cult.
Wait a minute, I thought. These records didn't belong in the same bin as the garbage records someone had tossed out when his aunt died.
I looked at some of the records up close, the ones that would be desirable had they not been tampered with. But they had been tampered with. They had grooves drawn in them, like the ones Ben had described on the radio, the careful etchings that helped them better suit their owner.
On some, Ben had etched his initials-BHV-into the outer edge. He must have been proud of what he had done.
Here it was, in the as-is section. The Vinyl Canal.
Ben had not described these records well. Or else, after his radio appearance, his devotion to the Vinyl Canal had only deepened, and the grooves he drew in the records grew more artful and elaborate.
If the original scratches he left in Agents of Fortune were Doric, then the ones he made in Electric Lady/and were Corinthian; there were canals, and within the canals, where the needle wouldn't go, there were patterns I had never seen before. Layered onto the dull mass-market audio was visual artistry, amateur though it was. Ben had been like a monk writing on a palimpsest.
I had had no idea. But here it all was.
I looked at the covers of his records, at the magician with the deck of cards on Agents of Fortune, at Alice Cooper with a snake climbing down his throat, and at The Clash goofing off on the cover of Combat Rock. I thought of all the possibilities: Ben nonlethally subdued on Court Street, Ben slumped in his own vomit in the back of a police vehicle, Ben getting his ribs kicked in by a man in uniform.
Or: Ben packing his things, nonchalantly, probably while listen ing to a podcast, into whatever car he drove-a hatchback Civic, maybe-and peeling out of town because he didn't feel like being here anymore. He wanted to dive headfirst into Cleveland. Or Akron. For one reason or another, he was gone. That was all it could mean, these records being here. Theywere his life's work, or the closest
thing to it that there was.
I didn't buy the records. I didn't buy any of them.
From behind me, with a hand on my hip, Ann said she was ready to go. I rubbed my eyes, and turned to leave with her.