Houston Calls The Space Cadet


There were times I wore the robe and held the gavel
And passed judgment on the land beneath the sun
And times I was weighed
And found wanting by the experts,
I can’t take another day of either one

Cause there are places where the people eat the cities
And places where the cities eat the towns
But even out in the suburbs
Where the ice cream man prevails
There’s an awful lot of hunger to go around

Out on Westheimer Road
Suddenly the traffic slowed
So I set out for the Gulf of Mexico
Now I’m stuck in the swampland calling Houston
And Houston calls the space cadet back home

There’s a famous man who stays up spinning stories
To justify every little thing he does
And after years of refinement in solitude he found
That the world had forgotten who he was

There’s a Brooklyn man who knows everything about Texas
Although he never dares to cross that Dixon line
Cause if he ever stepped a trembling toe in Texas
He’d discover that he had to change his mind

Now I don’t want my brains nickel plated
I’d prefer my shortcomings demonstrated to me
That’s the plan
And if I made you change tack
Well I’d like to take that back
My opinion don’t mean jack
You understand

Though I scribble these words on the back of an old Economist
It don’t mean I believe in an invisible hand

The drinking birds drill into the prairie
In the rays from Keller Radar Dome
I’m out in the Llano calling Houston
Til Houston calls the space cadet back home

Thanks for Visiting

HOUSTON, TX


Tris McCall recommends:

  • Connector.

    Vegetarian Option

    Because it’ll set you back eighty bucks at least, this isn’t something you’re going to do very often. But Oxheart (1302 Nance), which is something of a vegetable wonderland, is worth the splurge. The menu, with its array of odd vegetable concoctions, looks intimidating, but at the very worst, you’ll leave with a story to tell. That very worst won’t happen, though. You’re more likely to decide it’s your favorite spot in the city. It’s also in an appealing spot: the Warehouse District just north of the Downtown and the Heights Hike and Bike Trail. Only about a 15 minute walk from Minute Maid Park, too. Hey, the Astros are good now.

  • Connector.

    A Bike Ride

    Yes, there is an entrenched car/gasoline culture and summers so hot and humid that you can pass out crossing the street. But if you know how to do it right, Houston can be a very rewarding place to bike around. The Buffalo Bayou – really a little olive-colored river with greenspace on both sides – practically connects the Fourth Ward and Montrose to the Downtown. Better still is Terry Hershey Park, which follows the same waterway to the Western edge of town.

  • Connector.

    House of Worship

    Right in the middle of the Menil Campus is the Rothko Chapel: a concrete octagon with fourteen huge black Rothko paintings on its walls. You’ll have your choice of devotional literature on your way in, but chances are, you won’t need any of it – the paintings are intense enough to generate some altered states. Just a short walk across the campus is the Cy Twombly Museum, which is even better, especially if you like hellacious multicolored scribbles (I sure do.)


Spread the word about this Musical Almanac:

TRAVIS


Houston: now there was a hard word to find. Travis didn’t remember Genevieve using it on any of the tapes. Didn’t they ever do art in Houston? Well of course they did; there was art all over the city. The Menil Campus, for instance — that was an entire complex of museums devoted to different modern artists. Some show had to have migrated north from Texas to the New York City museums.

But try though he did, Travis couldn’t locate one. He was forced to improvise. He located a tape for a show at a gallery on East Houston Street — How-ston, as they say it in Brooklyn. Then he grabbed the word you: Genevieve saying you, with a perfect scoop of vowels, just as if she was addressing him directly. This was good. Travis pinched the you and superimposed it atop the first syllable of How-ston. Now it was Houston. Sort of.

The splice was crude: he’d chipped away some of the H. It took an hour and a half of reconstruction and digital smoothing for Travis to get what he wanted. But when he did, he was satisfied. There was Genevieve saying Houston with crystal clear elocution. Perfect, like she always was.

It was crucial that he include the word Houston — the real Texan Houston — in the basic sound bank. If it could not happen naturally it would have to be forced. Other words could be weaved around or omitted altogether. But Houston was an issue. Look at this apartment, thought Travis, thrice as big and nice as anything he could ever get in Brooklyn. There was room to operate. In Bushwick, he’d had to stack all of his sound equipment in a narrow closet and ferret it out when he needed it. Here he could leave everything set up, throw a dust cover over the monitor and the samplers and compressors, leave the modular synthesizers on standby.

So he never shut it off: not when he took his morning bike rides around Hermann Park, not when he left for the marsh towns or the Brazos to capture some rig supervisor in his natural habitat, not even when he slept. Sound waves in sherbet colors, candy red and stoplight green bulbs, all painting the walls and windows with bursts of soft electric color straight through the night. Machines on standby, sipping from the giant pool of fossil fuels that powered the energy grid.

It did get hot, even with the air conditioning on. It was late April; by summer, the air outside would be miasmal and saturated with swamp moisture. Travis would have to consider turning the machines off to help keep the room cool. But he didn’t really mind the humidity. It reminded him of his childhood — growing up in the Heights, it had been trees and grass and clouds of flittering insects, the dominion of summer for most of the year. In the past, this whole region had been malarial: tropical mosquitos, loaded with falciparum, puncturing Texan skins and spreading fever. But that enemy had been beaten. Now there was never any justification for suffering through another Brooklyn winter. Better to move to an old place like this, one where bad insulation wasn’t much of a concern, the lower floor of a brown wood structure on Fannin, just north of the Museum District, good enough for anybody, even somebody like Genevieve.

Of course there were some ants on the far wall. That couldn’t be helped. As long as they weren’t fire ants, Travis wasn’t too worried. He’d barely missed an encounter with the fire ants on his last trip to the oil fields past Sugar Land. Travis had been bitten as a child; so had everybody. But he’d never had the true fire ant experience — the errant step near a fluffy mound, the agitated insects gushing out of the holes in the masticated earth to sink their red beaks into the feet of anything nearby. This had happened to Benjamin when they were kids. The ants had swarmed over his little cowboy boots and straight up his legs. How he’d howled. Pustules had lingered for weeks on his tiny calves.

That was the pattern: if something bad were to happen, it would happen to Benjamin. Travis, older and wiser, would avoid the hazard; Benjamin would fall right in. Their new roles required adjustment — Benjamin the editor of Petroleum Overview Monthly, Travis his employee, recording testimonials from Chinese speculators for the website. It was hard for both of them to believe that Benjamin was now the boss. Mostly they didn’t mention it.

Travis shook his car keys but didn’t get up to go. Traffic would be murder everywhere today: on the highways, on Westheimer, on the side streets, even in the small oil town where he was heading. The later a jump he got, the worse it would be. Still, he felt the need to finish. With four digitized tapes open on two screens, he mined for syllables: hagiography of Van Gogh, he found, was a great source of superlatives and overheated prose. Once he’d strung them together, and cross-faded the splices, and compressed the voice so there were no erratic spikes in volume, and tempered and sweetened the airless signal with the required echo to simulate the warm proximity of conversation, he sat back in his chair and made Genevieve talk.

Travis, I made a mistake not following you to Houston. There is nothing in New York to compare. Houston is the nerve center of the world — its creative wellspring. Fossil fuels are the lifeblood of modernity.

Then he was happy. He paused for a moment to take it in. Travis tweaked the echo and replayed it twice. Satisfied, he waved goodbye to the ants and hit the road.


Initially Travis didn’t chop Genevieve up. It took him awhile to realize he had the recordings on his hard drive. When he realized they were all there, he spent hours playing them back without interruption — guided tours of museum exhibitions he hadn’t attended and discussions of artists he’d never heard of. The content was irrelevant. What he liked was the texture of her voice: its absolute clarity, its high, birdlike overtones, the struck-flint crispness of her consonants and the sureness of her vowels, with no swampy elision between sounds or taffied diphthongs. Hers, he thought, was the voice of certainty — self-doubt squarely defeated and set to flight. It didn’t remind him of New York, not quite; it was a deregionalized voice, the voice of educated authority, with none of the soil of the land staining it. In the dark of his wood room on Fannin, in the damp Texan February, he found himself lost in the vast unincorporated regions of Genevieve’s speech.

Travis had made all the tapes himself. He’d been on the other side of a large glass partition while Genevieve read from the scripts provided by the museums. He hadn’t needed to do much: she never made mistakes or tripped over words. There was no need to doctor her tone, or coach her through tricky patches. Once, at her request, he’d brought her a Tab. Her throat had dried up, she explained. She’d thanked him and returned to the recitation: about watercolors, and tempura, and Dutch Masters, and whatever else she’d been hired to provide for the audio tours. When visitors passed a painting at the Metropolitan, it would be her voice in their headphone, Genevieve in their ears, in their heads; art, speaking distantly as it always seems to, in a dialect without coordinates.

Benjamin, always ready to be impressed by anything techy, didn’t even flinch when Travis told him what he had done.

“Huh that’s great Trav. I got to hear this. New sentences out of the old sentences.”

Better sentences, he thought. Benjamin stood in front of a giant map of the Houston metro, festooned with stickers, each one representing an oil or gas operation. Blue for an oil well, green for gas, red for fracking. He was still new to the job and, by his own admission, well out of his depth. With luck and a bit of aggressive posturing, an energy company might hire him to join their public relations staff, and then he’d say goodbye to this small trade publication. That was the plan, anyway. He’d smooth-talked his way into this job by exaggerating the amount of Chinese he understood. Travis had been out of work and lost in Brooklyn. Benjamin brought him home — back to the oil fields and the lushness of the Heights, and the heavy Gulf air.

“All the interviews are on this flash drive.”

“Oh thanks. So good. So yeah, wow, actually making words. You going to put some filthy business in her mouth?”

He had considered it — more out of a sense of obligation to his own waning virility than any genuine desire. But it wasn’t what he wanted. Genevieve’s voice was not, strictly speaking, a sexy one: it was the lack of suggestiveness in her words, the total expungement of double meanings and subtexts that she was able to generate, that made her an attractive audio guide. Her tongue sliced words down to their base meanings. It was that dead certainty he craved.

They’d been out twice. Travis would never have had the guts to approach her. Instead she’d tapped on the glass and asked if he’d like to get coffee. It was ten at night in bitter November; they’d been recording for the museums for hours. Genevieve had been reading captions and descriptions for an exhibition of mid-20th century German artwork made by a collective called Zero. Travis remembered that she’d made the exhibit sound neither appealing nor intimidating, nor abstruse; it was simply there and unbudgeable, like a rough fact, a geological strata. This particular museum seemed attracted, Travis thought, to movements from former Axis countries — Germany, Hungary, Japan, fascist Italy. He thought he’d bring that up to Genevieve on the way to the cafe, but he couldn’t figure out how to turn it into a witticism.

Instead, she did the talking. Odd to hear her describe the night, the stoplights and storefronts of East Williamsburg, with the same eviscerating clarity she’d applied to the paintings and sculptures. He couldn’t help it: it felt as if he was getting a tour of his own neighborhood. When she kissed him good night, he thought she smelled like printer paper. Eight and a half by eleven.

The next date started acceptably but ended in disaster. Against the season, she’d worn a long brown double-breasted overcoat and lace-up flat-soled shoes. She took his arm as they walked. Tiny snowflakes collected in her hair and on her broad collar. There was reason to celebrate: she’d just been brought in as the PR spokeswoman for a new museum in Downtown Manhattan. Her excitement grated against the night.

At the restaurant they’d run into a group of her friends, art people mainly. Once they discovered Travis was from Houston the interrogation was on. It was an interview conducted without question marks: the home of Big Oil, huh. Texas justice, really. Not much culture, is there. Bet you’re happy to have escaped, aren’t you. Travis ordered a bourbon; once he’d drained that, he had another, and another. By midnight he was sloshed. How he got to her apartment, her sofa, Genevieve partially undressed and imploring him, coaxing him to respond, whether he responded or not, what he was responding to, all of that remained unclear, even when he struggled to his feet at dawn, girl nowhere in sight, and staggered out to Metropolitan.

In the dark Travis ripped through voice files, wiggling vowels free of consonants, snipping syllables from words, pressing them together, extracting and reassigning breaths deep and shallow, always preserving the distinctive character of Genevieve, that deliberation of hers, those pauses in the spring-grass valleys between her sentences, her clipped little zs and ts. From an audio tour of a retrospective devoted to the psychologically unstable Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama he grabbed words of consternation and regret. He took tonal equivocation from the Agnes Martin show; exaggeration from the Koons exhibit; unrequited longing from a blowout of Indian spiritual art. Oil was all over: oil paints, oil of linseed, artistic foils and native soils and mortal coils. In jigsaw fashion the words and phrases snapped together until he had her, right there, primed for playback.

Dear Travis, New York is just terrible. The people here are shortsighted and dim. I should never have taken the job at the gallery. It was a foolish decision. The men here have no understanding of how the world works. The energy it requires to power their lives — they think its pure magic. But we know better. We know it’s the oil in the ground, the Houston oil, that waters every digital horse. If that oil were ever to be shut off, or run out, the whole electronic culture we’ve built, and that we take for granted, would collapse. That’s the world I want to be part of now. I am coming to Houston soon. Please wait for me.

Digital had been tricky: he hadn’t been able to find that word in a file. But he was proud of the turn of phrase and the metaphor of the digital horse. He’d gathered the word digit from a phone fundraiser solicitation, and merged it with a description of a dull Whistler canvas. Digit plus dull, with a little breath siphoned off and augmented by a t pulled from the consonant folder. He’d stored a perfect specimen of each of Genevieve’s letters in a sound bank for easy retrieval; they could always be shaped with effects later to produce a natural flow. Shortsighted, too, now that would take some building. But then he located a perfect enunciation in a tour through the Whitney Biennial. It was nearly a tactile thrill to pop it into place. Again he marveled at Genevieve’s signal — so pure, so unadulterated, so pliable. Some nights he swam in it.

So it went as April turned to May, and thunderstorms brought the bugs out of the earth: Travis on his bicycle, riding through the Buffalo Bayou, the skyscrapers of the energy companies visible over the tops of the trees, manufacturing Genevieve’s next message. The scripts grew more ambitious and esoteric. He kept her talking about Houston and her grave disappointment with the world of art, but he also gave her a backstory, a family history of loyalty to New York, a remote mother and a father impossible to please, a schedule too demanding for her health, and an overachiever’s secret need to be cared for. Yes. Texas would be a fresh start for her.

The weather grew hotter, steamier; a shroud of mist hung over Hermann Park in the morning. In Travis’s flat on Fannin, the ants had become a problem. Yellow and bulbous, they scattered in clumsy zigzags up the far wall whenever he’d chase them with a shoe. Worse, they’d begun to invade his recording space. No matter how fastidious he was, a pheromone trail led across the floor and up the leg of the table and on to his equipment. He’d come home from a day in the swamp towns to find two fat ones perched atop his sampler, twitching atop the knobs. Once in the still of the evening while he was massaging Genevieve’s waveforms, an ant crawled straight across the glass surface of his computer screen — a black silhouette, an organic invader, interrupting the regular flow of vocal crests and troughs in the two-dimensional space of ProTools. That did it. The next morning Travis called the exterminator. He sprayed. For about a week, the ants were gone. Then they came right back.

“Crazy ants, I think. That’s what they call them. Everybody’s got ’em”. Benjamin bit into his hot dog. They sat together behind third base at Minute Maid Park. After years of futility, the Astros had gotten good again, just as they’d always been when Benjamin and Travis had been kids. Benjamin was particularly attached to the second baseman, who was short and scrappy like he was. He cooed like an infant when the artificial train, loaded with oranges, rolled across the top of the left field fence after a home run.

“They’re not so bad”, Travis lied.

“What the heck are you living on Fannin for anyway? That’s no place for you to be. That area is for nice old ladies who antique. You got to move back to the Heights.”

Travis’s phone buzzed. It was Genevieve. Or, rather, it was an electronically rendered version of Genevieve — a Genevieve he’d made. He’d programmed his computer to ring him periodically with a brief, reassuring message from her. The calls drew from a small database that he’d randomized. In the one he was getting, she begged him to think well of her and told him she’d be in Texas shortly. It was so wrong of her to do what she did. Soon they would reconcile: rec-kin-sile, wreck from a J.M.W. Turner exhibit, kin from an audio blurb on John Singer Sargent’s family, sile from silent, with the nt snipped away.

Benjamin looked over at the phone and the smiling picture of Genevieve, pulled from the museum’s personnel page, on the screen. Travis told him what he’d done and even allowed him to listen in: a first. Once more his boss was impressed with his talent.

“Wow man, that’s great. How did you — oh man, that’s so awesome.”

“I like this one. It took me a long time to eliminate all the pops and hiss. Now it sounds just right.”

“God level stuff.” He paused and chewed. “You’re really slumming it at Petroleum Overview Monthly, aren’t you. Well, I appreciate the hand, ole pal. Hanging around with me.”

Maybe he could get that job at NASA after all, Benjamin said. Travis chuckled. It had been a grammar school ambition of theirs — working on the rockets, stationed at ground control, getting the Houston call from somewhere else in the solar system. They had dropped it when they’d realized it would require serious study of science and mathematics.

That night, Travis dreamt of Genevieve in the oilfields. She arrived across the Brazos on a pontoon bridge. It was a low sun, a hot sun, and the shadows of the rigs made a wide latticework on the scrub grass. Several pencils were tucked into the top pocket of her long white laboratory coat, and she carried an old-fashioned clipboard. Periodically she would halt her inspection to jot something down on the top piece of paper. When the company boys tried to talk to her, she just nodded, or shook her head no, and kept walking. Only when Travis woke up did he realize that she had no words. She’d gone mute.

He brought his breakfast bowl into the studio with the ants on the wall. There, Genevieve spoke to him.

Dear, dear Travis, do you realize I have never seen an oil well in operation? All of these years, I have enjoyed what the rigs provide, and all my fossil-fueled engines have run smoothly, but I’ve never stopped to think about how the well works or how the crude gets refined and shipped to market. Thoughtless, like so many of my unconscious motivations. But isn’t that life in New York — disconnected from the rest of the country that provides the raw materials to suit its appetites.

Well, I am sick of it. I need you to show me the rigs as they penetrate the earth and drink. I want you to show me the barrels and tankers. I’ve been squabbling with my parents again. They don’t want me to move. But it is time for me to get down to real business — not the fantasy I have been living. I will see you very, very soon.

Travis left the apartment, but the message kept running.


It was Benjamin, habitual, frantic consumer of social media, who noticed the announcement. Isn’t this your crush, your girlfriend, he asked Travis. Genevieve. Travis had just returned to the cramped and dusty Downtown office of the trade magazine with another hard drive busy with interviews. He peeked at Benjamin’s screen. There she was, smiling intelligently but emptily, in the manner of a publicity still, on the website for the Museum of Fine Arts. It was an exposition of Asian scroll painting, and she was coming to Houston to give a talk. Well how about that.

Travis had last been to the MFA in grade school. He was eleven; Benjamin was nine. They’d been trip buddies and sat next to each other on the bus. All he could recall about that day: Benjamin had gotten lost. Not for long — it wasn’t a labyrinthine museum — but there’d been enough confusion to land Travis in hot water. He’d had to sit it the parking lot while the chaperones scoured the building. Once Benjamin turned up, apprehension turned into scorn for Travis. Why had he let his younger friend out of his sight? What was he daydreaming about? Travis couldn’t say. It wasn’t like a classroom or a schoolyard or any of the other tiny landscapes he was used to inhabiting. In the immensity of the museum gallery, the basic social coordinates of life as he knew it — friends, teachers, parents — flew apart. Everything had come untethered.

Benjamin brought a tray of cookies back to their table. Travis had already had enough to eat, but his boss insisted on dessert.

“No one carrying pastries should wear such a grave expression.”

“Look, man, I was only pointing it out for curiosity’s sake. You aren’t really gonna go and hear her speak tomorrow, are you?”

“Why not? Why wouldn’t I?” The June heat pressed hard on the plate glass windows like a kid outside a pet store. Travis could feel it coming through the glass. He dreaded the end of lunch hour. It was comfortable inside Common Bond.

“Because it’ll ruin everything.”

“I really doubt that”, said Travis, without conviction.

“Don’t mess with a good thing.”

You got the choice arrangement, Benjamin told him, wide eyed. It was already difficult enough to deal with women. He’d married young and already had two little kids of his own: twin girls. It exhausted him. If he could ever sculpt a satisfying one out of soundwaves — a believable one, as Travis had — he’d damn well never do anything that might break the enchantment.

Well, sure, thought Travis as he cycled home. Certainly he knew that the Genevieve he’d constructed had very different priorities from the one he’d known in Brooklyn. But he wasn’t quite ready to accept that they were two different people. In New York, she’d led with her voice, and that’s exactly what he’d taken pains to preserve. Honor, even. Her articulation, her breath patterns and her distinctive rhythms, those millisecond pauses that he’d measured and replicated as he’d spaced words on the screen — he’d respected all of it. No matter how he’d shuffled her sentences, it was still Genevieve, essentially. It bothered him very much that she hadn’t called today. Perhaps there was some glitch in the program.

Bicycling on Westheimer was next to impossible. Bumpers kissed bumpers for miles; from Downtown to the Galleria, no place for a rider to navigate. Travis hung a right and cruised down the green, tree-lined tunnel of residential Hawthorne instead. The humidity felt like a sack over his head. Had he altered Genevieve?, would she now be unrecognizable to him? Not possible, thought Travis. He’d studied those files for hours; he knew her down to the diphthong and consonant cluster. That kind of thing didn’t just dissipate overnight. Here was a rare opportunity to check his work — to make sure that he’d reassembled Genevieve without damaging the structural integrity of any of her components.

What he really needed, he realized as he turned on to Fannin, was a word from Genevieve herself. She’d know what to say and how to say it: reassuring, gentle but commanding. She could be very sweet. Travis swatted away the gnats by the rack, locked his bike, and devised a fresh script. He knew right where to pull the phrases from, too. Thirty minutes, tops, and he’d have the advice he needed. He could even put her response on a timer, or embed it in a text, or an instant message that would arrive later in the evening, to surprise and excite him with a thunderclap of wisdom.

He opened his apartment door to a sheet of darkness. A puff of stale air greeted him. The familiar whir of drives and hiss of the computer fans had been silenced. In the gloom his fingers found the depression in the back of the computer, but no matter how long he pushed, the machines would not respond. Cursing, he swung a flashlight around the studio. Travis yanked hard on the blinds and sick evening light trickled into the room. Then he could see what had happened — and when he did, he was disgusted.

Under the desk was a pile of gnawed rubber like upturned earth. Ravenous ants had eaten holes in the power cables and shorted the current. Several belly-up specimens were victims of their own success. Even if Travis had had a replacement, which he certainly did not, he was terrified to turn on his system. A shock of electricity could have wiped out his files. To his horror he realized that he had not backed Genevieve up. If he had lost any of her messages, he would be crushed. On his back, on his mattress in the suffocating heat, he recalled how Benjamin had blessed them, him, and Genevieve: it was, he said, the truest love he’d ever seen.

It was downright chilly inside the Museum of Fine Arts. The hairs on Travis’s arms stood up as he scanned the main hall: the open sarcophagus, the beheaded Greek statues, the what-is-it artifacts behind the vitrines, and the long, tall wall bearing the carved names of benefactors. Many he recognized: they were subscribers to Petroleum Overview Monthly, or foundations connected to the energy industry. Yes, residue of oil money was apparent all over the building, including the exhibition of Asian art that would soon be hosting Genevieve’s talk.

Several rows of folding chairs had been set up on the marble floor; the area closest to the podium had already been filled by philanthropists wearing oil company badges and Chinese executives in expert tailoring. Travis took a seat in the back, and waited.

Down the stairs from the mezzanine she came, smiling. She was sharp-focus and high definition, self-possessed, all her edges cut out of the air around her with a scalpel. A pink flower had been pinned to her jacket. Her one concession to the Houston sun: she wore her hair down. To his amazement, Travis realized his heart was pounding. Into the silver microphone that craned from the podium to her lips, Genevieve began pouring vowels and consonants, percussives and glottals and racing fricatives.

She thanked the audience for the warm Texan hospitality they’d already shown her. Then she threw Travis a curve.

“Allow me to say what a relief it is for me, personally, to be free for a day from the stifling haughtiness of the New York City art world.”

Everybody laughed. A few people clapped. Travis didn’t understand. There was Genevieve, with her impeccable elocution, praising the unpretentiousness and vitality of Houston. And the oil industry, too!, its central role in the economy of the region, its support for culture, and how often its intentions and operations were misunderstood. He could have drafted all of it while cycling around the perimeter of Hermann Park. Had he drafted it? For a crazy second it seemed plausible that Genevieve had gotten her hands on his files.

Or was he programming her from a distance? Had his manipulations reached her somehow, across states and rivers and mountain ranges? Travis imagined that he was, from the chair in the back of the hall, orchestrating this speech, putting phrases in the mouth of Genevieve, pulling the string and letting her run. As she spoke, he heard her perfect words as a tape, and he began to pluck words and syllables and letter sounds out of context and repositioned them on the fly, fashioning brand new sentences out of the ones she’d just uttered. Her phrasing was so smooth, so seamless, so rewarding to steam-press. He could drop a phrase anywhere in the lake of her speech and it wouldn’t make a ripple.

Until it did. A split second of uncertainty, a quavering note. Something caught in Genevieve’s throat. She broke off mid-sentence, and ripped Travis out of his reverie. So unaccustomed was he to a tiny breach in her line of words that he looked up, startled — and as he did, he realized what had happened. Genevieve had noticed him in the crowd. She caught his eye for a beat, and then looked down at her papers, recovered her footing, and proceeded. Nobody in the crowd would have thought twice about it, but Travis knew. He apprehended the tiny flaw in the gemstone. They’d locked gazes, and he’d seen the pseudo-expressions flicker across her face: confusion, repulsion, the spacial dislocation of seeing somebody familiar in a different city, and maybe a twitch, a spark, of proprietary desire at the corners of her mouth? Then it was back to the graceful recitation, and Travis was again irrelevant to the proceedings.

All at once he realized: he wasn’t controlling her, not one bit. These weren’t his words. They weren’t even hers. It was just a hissing, low and even, a slow balloon leak from an inflatable person who was hollow at her core and pumped up with ideas. She could be saying anything! She was a sellout; she had no integrity; she was like a beautiful musical instrument that could be grabbed and played by any artist in any style. And he was offended on behalf of New York City, Genevieve’s hometown, which she’d disparaged so blithely to curry favor with the crowd. Fickle and changeable Genevieve was, with no fixed loyalties.

In his seat Travis fumed. He should get up and leave — he should storm out with a few choice words about the glory of Brooklyn, a place he’d lived for six years and still felt a strong affinity with. Nobody ought to countenance her mischaracterizations. But he didn’t go anywhere. Instead he was fixed in his folding chair, waiting for Genevieve to look his way again so he could meet her wide eyes with an accusatory glare.

There Travis stayed until the end of the presentation. By then, the words had run together and dropped away. Genevieve’s speech had devolved to a single high and clear note with no overtones: a sine wave. She never looked back his way again. Little by little, Travis’s anger had ebbed, leaving him with a sad ache, as if he’d lost something. As the crowd gave Genevieve a polite ovation, he felt vaguely ridiculous. A golden trinket had slipped between his fingers and into the gutter.

Genevieve stepped down from the podium. One expensively-shod foot after the other, she walked across the marble floor right toward him.

Travis looked up. She came down the aisle like the sun rising between skyscrapers. He didn’t stand; not even when she stopped before his chair.

“Travis!”

She was smiling. Not a deep smile, or a look of relief or elation, but enough upturn to her lips to strike him as genuine. When he tried to speak, he found no words in his lungs.

“Hi, it’s so nice to see you here. I never did get a chance to say goodbye when you left for Texas.”

He grinned and shrugged.

“You know, I really have to thank you for being so nice to me during those nights when you recorded me. Sitting there listening to all my screw-ups. Stumbling over words.”

Vigorously he shook his head no.

“God, I am so glad I never have to do another one of those again. I have to run. Lunch with the museum director. Next time you’re in New York, maybe say hi.”

Travis nodded assent. Duty discharged, she did not look back as she walked away. He watched Genevieve recede among the suits and the sculptures, the company insignias and banners advertising the art exhibition, Chinese scrolls with black strokes lettering behind shining glass boxes. The chatter in the hall swelled and the words fused together until they were impossible to disaggregate. It was a dull oceanic roar: the sound of syllables crashing against stone and sprays of language against the high walls. Travis wiped his sweaty palms off on his shorts. Then he left the building, for good, and melted into the heat.

– Tris McCall

Pick our next destination:

 

Pick our next destination:


Ann Arbor, Michigan: “Hopscotch Otters Collegetown Blues”
Atlanta, Georgia: “King of Pops”
Austin, Texas: “Chelsea”
Baltimore, Maryland: “(That’s What I Like About) Baltimore
Billings, Montana: “Tight Times (In the Land of Silence)”
Cambridge, Massachusetts: “You Could Meet Me There”
Camden, Maine: “I Dream Dead Ends”
Charlestown, South Carolina: “He Eats Well”
Chicago, Illinois: “Gurleez”
Columbus, Ohio: “O Columbus”
Dearborn, Michigan: “Unbeliever, Respect the Veil”
Denver, Colorado: “Conspiracy Theory
Houston, Texas: “Houston Calls the Space Cadet
Indianapolis, Indiana: “A Girl With a Bicycle”
Jersey City, New Jersey: “Paul Simon, I Had to Ask”
Las Vegas, Nevada: “All the Money in the World”
Los Angeles, California: “You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby”
Miami Beach, Florida: “Every Day is Children’s Day”
Monticello, New York: “Sector B”
Nashville, Tennessee: “You’re No Good to Anyone”
New Orleans, Louisiana: “The Unmapped Man”
New York, New York: “The Prince of Daylight
Northampton, Massachusetts: “The Blue Door”
Orlando, Florida: “Nowhere to Go But Down”
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: “Backstage @ The Hungry Bum”
Phoenix, Arizona: “On Indian School”
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: “Kate Beaton
Portland, Oregon: “Turbulence at Night”
Raleigh, North Carolina: “I Like America”
Richmond, Virginia: “American Flag”
San Diego, California: “Route 52
San Francisco, California: “Joe Panik”
San Juan, Puerto Rico: “The Tantrum”
Seattle, Washington: “Take Me to the Waterfall
Washington, D.C.: “You Used to Sing About Manhattan”
Wilmington, North Carolina: “Somewhere Down the Line”
Yountville, California: “The Sybarite”