by Chad Simpson
Pac-Man and Elvis Presley were listening to Ornette Coleman‘s “The Shape of Jazz to Come”—on vinyl.
The sky had turned pre-tornadic, was lit up with darkness like the inside of a bruise.
Elvis said something about chord structures, about what it meant for Coleman to abandon them, but Pac-Man wasn’t really listening. He hated thunderstorms.
This was West Central Illinois, late April, 2014, though both of them had a kind of complicated relationship with time and place. Elvis thought time was mere abstraction. Pac-Man liked to think there was more to it than that.
The weather app on Pac-Man’s phone showed dark clouds, lightning. “Should we go to the basement?” he said.
Elvis made a quieting motion with his hand, looked at the turntable with faraway eyes.
Pac-Man checked his email. He sent a text. Their WiFi signal was still strong, which he figured was a good sign, but then he looked out the window and saw a cloud standing still in the sky. Beneath the music, he thought he heard a bird go quiet.
“Are you listening?” Elvis said. “Did you hear that?”
Pac-Man sometimes wondered whether every moment he endured on a daily basis wasn’t also being suffered in some slightly different way by each and every human being alive, that had ever lived. He worried about ghosts, about a hunger that interminably nudged at his soul, seemed impossible to quell.
“How did the writing go today?” he asked.
Elvis was working on a book of poems told via a series of letters addressed to Mary Todd Lincoln. He’d been at it for three years, was calling it his life’s work.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Elvis said.
Pac-Man wrote mostly short stories, but lately, his heart hadn’t been in it. He’d read some alt lit, books by Tao Lin and Marie Calloway and other people he was vaguely aware of, and something about it made him think that his own work, that all literary work, was silly, meant nothing.
A siren began to sound.
Pac-Man looked at his phone, turned it over in his hands. When he realized the siren was coming from outside, he remembered the static of his parents’ weather radio, the cobwebs in their cellar. He remembered his mother, who liked to stand on the front porch and storm watch until the situation outside turned truly dire. Pac-Man never got used to it. Every time it stormed like this and his mother stepped out onto the porch, he was certain she was going to die.
Elvis seemed not to hear the siren, the one letting them know they should take shelter, prepare for the worst. “This album laid the foundation,” he said. “Who knows what the world would look like right now if it’d never been made.”
Pac-Man stood and left the room. That album, the one Elvis was so absorbed in, they’d bought it at American Apparel. It’d been on sale for like five bucks.
Pac-Man thought about funnel clouds and the alto saxophone. He thought about the word woodwind. He’d always loved that word. He didn’t know what it had to do with the music coming from the turntable, or with the brass and the single-reed mouthpiece, and that’s what he liked about it the most. How it seemed to have nothing at all to do with anything.
He activated the voice recorder on his phone and walked to the stairs that led to the basement. Standing at the threshold, he whispered the word woodwind.
He held his phone close to his face and played the recording back, listened to faint jazz coming from the living room, his feet on the hardwood floors, and the word woodwind. He played the recording again. Then two more times, standing now on the basement stairs, until it covered up the sound of Elvis’s record, the wailing storm siren. Until it sounded in his ears like a story, a song.
Chad Simpson is the author of “Tell Everyone I Said Hi,” which won the 2012 John Simmons Short Fiction Award and was published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Monmouth, Ill., and is an Associate Professor of English at Knox College.