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Issue 6 / Fiction / Bill U'Ren
Issue 6
Fiction

Bill U'Ren
Stereophonic

Ajay Singh had been working the cash register at DrugBox for almost a month when the temptation returned. A late afternoon lull forced him to notice the melodramatic pop tunes surging through the store’s broadcast system at an unforgiving
volume. Once his ears began to listen, there was no turning back. The loud soundtrack radiated from the ceiling in every corner, refusing to be ignored, somehow both arresting and awful. He scanned the aisles for Neil the manager, but his boss had disappeared. It was now pointless to surrender
to the temptation. The only way to get sent home early and escape the cacophony was to have someone witness his special gift in action. Without that, breaking the vow in an empty store would yield nothing but heartburn and a sore throat. The young clerk was trapped, his thoughts of getaway options overwhelmed by the histrionic voices swirling above, their prickly harmony punctuated by frighteningly jubilant synthesizers.
The gift first appeared in eighth grade. Ajay and the boys ran gym laps while Coach Klink loitered under the basketball rim, scanning a newspaper and blowing his whistle from time to time to remind them that he was watching. After half an hour, Ajay broke through a threshold of pain and exhaustion that he hadn’t thought possible. He gasped for air, his legs heavy and wobbling. If only I could do something to make this stop, he thought. If only there was some way to be sick and get out of this. Vomit suddenly sprayed across his gym clothes. He had not quit running, had not bent over at the waist, had not fallen to his knees. It came forth in one fell swoop without interruption. The noise stunned everyone.
Coach Klink held up a hand. Ajay saw the signal and stopped in his tracks, the vomit now dripping onto the gym parquet. The whistle fell from Coach’s lips and dangled on a black cord around his neck: “You boys see how Ajay is bustin’
his butt today?”
Everyone looked at the kid covered in vomit, astonished by the tone of praise. Ajay stood there in silence, staring blankly. He wasn’t sure what had happened, only that his mouth tasted like salsa and his chest hurt a little.
“Good workout, Ajay!” said Coach, mispronouncing his name—A.J.—like always. At the very first roll call, Coach had said, “Oh, ‘Ajay’ like A.J. Foyt the racecar driver.”
“No,” Ajay had said.
“Son, your parents named you after one helluva competitor.”
Ajay looked down at his gym shirt, the yellow tiger mascot completely concealed by vomit. He imagined the annoyance on his mother’s face when he brought home the uniform to be laundered. Should he just throw it away?
Coach Klink put his hand on Ajay’s shoulder, unfazed by the growing stench of bile. “Boys, A.J. has shown us what happens when you aren’t afraid,” he said, spinning him toward
the group. A few of the kids groaned as chunks splatted onto the floor. “He gave and gave until he could give no longer! And that’s why I’m sending him to the showers early today.”
Ajay walked toward the locker room, relieved. Somehow, his sudden fit of vomiting had been equated to a superlative work ethic, freeing him from P.E. And now he’d get the spray nozzles in the wash area to himself—before all the hot water was used up. At last, no running and no cold shower. The vomit wasn’t gross; it was wonderful. Behind him, he could hear the whistle prompting the rest of the class back to their laps, and a slightly wicked smile began to surface on his face before he repressed it.
As the weeks passed, Ajay learned that his particular gift was especially valuable and unique because he never had to rely on cumbersome tricks to trigger it into action; fingers weren’t shoved down his throat and the gag reflex was irrelevant.
For Ajay, the horrid act was merely like anyone else raising their hand in the classroom; all you had to do was think about raising it and BOOM, it was raised. Once Ajay decided to vomit, the physical response came in seconds. Thought into action.
After escaping gym class early, he began to search for other scenarios where his unique skill could secure both victory
and justice. There were, of course, its basic uses, like when he needed to abandon an unexpectedly challenging test at school and would get sent home sick. And there were the times the gift could simply clear out a crowded location. This came in handy for things like long movie theater or sandwich
shop lines. Any crowded place was his for the taking. He needed only to want it for himself and to be indifferent about who saw him do it. He wondered, though, if something more fitting for the gift was out there, something he had yet to discover.
Ajay stepped off the bus and sat down on the curb, opting not to walk home just yet. He watched the other passengers scatter in different directions, heading for the mid-century ranch houses spread throughout their neighborhood. It had been one of the first suburbs of Washington, D.C., but over the years, the sons and daughters of that initial wave had fled to newer, larger houses miles and miles away, unconcerned by the long drives that awaited them. A few of the original homeowners,
now grandparents, had remained. The rest were taken up by new Americans from other parts of the world, many of whom were like his parents, happy just to have a spot in this civilized environment. They did not need mansions.
He lingered on the curb, backpack in his lap, and watched the cars go by, occasionally glimpsing a strange face frozen in the midst of laughter. He’d been weighing the different responses
to his new gift. Most surprising of all was the notion that it somehow signaled to others an extreme work ethic. This baffled him.
He’d actually been warned about this strange American notion a few times in the past by his parents. They’d arrived in the suburb five years before he was born—leaving Chennai
to join a hotel opening in Colonial Old Town, near the very church where George Washington himself had once sung rapturous hymns. During a cold winter night in Room 237—with its bird’s eye view of those historic wooden pews—Ajay was conceived. Today, his parents still worked at the same hotel, having risen to management positions over the years, and every now and then, they would walk past Room 237 during an inspection and giggle together for a moment or two, recalling how they’d once snuck off during the night shift like star-crossed lovers.
From time to time, Mr. and Mrs. Singh described to their young son the phenomenon they had encountered in America: the so-called “work ethic” effect. This occurred, Ajay’s father
explained, when a manager valued an employee’s work ethic more than his actual work product.
“There will be days when the employee who looks like he is working the hardest is rewarded—even if his work is not the best.”
His mother agreed immediately. “If you accomplish the task with too much ease, then you will be discredited. You must instead appear as if you are the very epitome of exertion and struggle—for that is what they truly value.”
How his vomiting that day in gym class somehow correlated
with this work ethic principle—the exertion, the struggle—eluded him. From then on, though, whenever he saw Coach Klink, even those times when the man came into DrugBox, Ajay could sense in his face a look of respect. “A.J., if only I could get the rest of my players to fully commit themselves like you.”
Later that night, things were so busy behind the cash register
that a couple of fabulous hours passed when Ajay didn’t even notice the dreaded store music above. It wasn’t until well after dinner time when he began to hear the songs again and his sour mood returned. He tried to ignore the lyrics—something
about love and white lies and bedroom eyes—but they were too appalling. It became difficult not to speculate about a society raised on such songs. They seemed to make people feel alone and apathetic, their melodrama highlighting the pain instead of alleviating it. There was nothing “cathartic” about them, as Neil the manager had often claimed.
When the boss walked by this time, Ajay pointed at the stereo speakers in the ceiling.
“Can’t we turn this junk off?”
Neil stopped, fingered the traces of a new goatee on his chin. “What you fail to realize, Ajay, is that the company issaving hundreds of thousands of dollars with these songs you hate so much. They’re a big bargain, old enough to qualify for reduced royalties, but new enough that the customers know them.”
Ajay stared at him. “Mozart and Strauss and Beethoven . . . you can get all of their music for free! No royalties.”
“People don’t like that stuff.”
“They do, too.”
Neil pulled Ajay toward the snack aisle, where an abundance
of brightly packaged chips and pretzels and dried pork rinds made Ajay sometimes question the country’s prosperity. His boss approached a nearby customer in his early thirties who wore a baseball cap backwards. A sweaty grey T-shirt covered his black, long-sleeved thermal.
“Excuse me, sir,” began Neil, “just a quick DrugBox survey,
if you don’t mind?”
“Huh?” grunted the man. He seemed paralyzed by the dozens of microwave popcorn options on the aisle.
“How do you feel about Mozart? I mean, do you like his music?”
The man turned back to him, confused.
Neil hummed a few bars of Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
“Is this a quiz? I mean, do I win something?”
Ajay stepped forward and suddenly blurted out, “You win better music in this store.” He forced a wide grin onto his face.
“You play music here?” The man looked up toward the ceiling and took off the baseball cap, as if somehow that would increase his hearing. “Oh, yeah, I guess you do.”
Ajay turned back to Neil, frustrated. “This guy doesn’t count. He’s clearly an idiot!”
Neil quickly dragged Ajay behind a cardboard display for GoNuts DoNuts.
“Hey, you can’t talk about customers like that. They might hear you.”
“I’m telling you, normal people—real people—like Mozart just fine.”
Neil held up his arms, shrugging. “Look, I know you think you’re helping.”
“Don’t underestimate the average person.”
“I’m not,” said Neil. “I’ve been doing this job for a long time. A lot longer than you.”
Just then, the glorious Kim Hardwicke walked down the aisle, about to begin her shift—Ajay’s favorite part of the workday.
Kim had been the only person who’d pronounced his name correctly right from the start. She attended community college during the day, but once confessed to him that she wasn’t really sure what she wanted to do with her life. He found this candor attractive, and the idea that she’d shared something so personal invigorated him. He’d tried to think of some secret to offer in return, but could only detail how annoyed
he’d gotten when his younger brother Vijay announced to the family that from now on he would answer to the name “Vic.”
Kim Hardwicke wore a smart ponytail, and as she moved with her confident, bouncy cadence, she tapped the manager
on the shoulder and said, “Hey, Neil, how about turning down this crap for once?” The manager was befuddled by her directness. Kim lightly winked at Ajay, then sidled past the two of them toward the back without waiting for an answer. Ajay and Neil stood frozen, neither realizing that they’d been staring.
“Okay?” Ajay finally said, holding out his hands. “So I’m not the only one who hates the music here.”
“Get back behind the damn register!”
Ajay wanted to formulate the perfect snappy comeback, but instead he could feel only raw anger at Neil and the idiots at headquarters. He was at the mercy of idiots. They were all around him. Idiots buying pork rinds. Idiots buying peanut butter-filled pretzels. Idiots buying jalapeño-flavored anything. Was the rest of his life going to be spent serving fools?
Ajay scanned the aisle. No one was around now. The other
employees were entirely out of view, and Kim was already buried in the back with the inventory. He and Neil were alone. Ajay thought about his gift and took a deep breath.
“Holy hell!” screamed Neil.
Vomit covered the floor in between them, reaching the edge of the metal magazine rack. Ajay closed his eyes and produced a second wave, spraying the ground loudly. This time, he caught the bottom corners of some comics on the rack, especially Middle Earth Heroes—collateral damage he could live with. He panted, having trouble catching his breath. His throat burned and his temples ached. That weird salsa taste returned.
Neil smiled, a look of patience. “Maybe you should take the rest of the night off,” he said, nervously. “And tomorrow, too. I don’t want this bug getting the whole store.”
Ajay turned and began unbuttoning his blue cashier’s blouse, carefully tiptoeing over the trails of vomit on the cream-colored linoleum. For two blessed days, he would be free of that horrid music. His only regret was that he’d broken his vow, his moratorium on the gift, at the beginning of Kim’s shift, not at the end. How stupid! In any normal circumstance, he would’ve been able to think things through and resist the temptation to escape like this, but the annoyances at DrugBox
outweighed the occasional sightings of the glorious Kim he would’ve gotten if he’d hung on and finished his shift. Just seeing her walk by was normally the highlight of his job, but tonight, somehow, that wasn’t enough. What’s wrong with me? he wondered.
Ajay sat in his room at home with a dry erase board and a set of markers, trying to generate solutions to the music problem at work. Earplugs were the only option he’d come up with, so far, and he knew they were an impractical solution
for any head cashier. Cashiers had more duties than just counting back change to the customers, and earplugs would cause trouble.
“What’s that again, sir, Marlboro Lights? Say that again?”
It was now the third time he’d left the store early due to the undisclosed “illness” which seemed to return the moment his music complaint was ignored. Ajay always checked both ways to make sure Kim Hardwicke wasn’t around to witness the act. He had to be certain she never saw it happen. If she did, she might run off and never speak to him again. What girl would? He imagined her voice. “You can barf on command?
How romantic, how sexy.” Yes, he had to make sure she never, ever saw it happen.
Earlier that day, Neil listened once more to a complaint from Ajay and then simply put his hands on his hips and said, “We’re not changing a thing. Live with it.”
The vomit shot forth this time with suddenness that momentarily
shocked both of them. Neil quickly retrieved a bucket
and mop.
“Maybe it’s time you went and saw a specialist for that,” he said, beginning to clean the mess.
Ajay knew there was no medical treatment that could make him immune to the store’s rancid soundtrack playing all shift long, hour after hour until the weeks became months and then years. The difficulty now was in finding an answer that Neil could accept. He did not dislike Neil, and he did not consider him to be horrendously out-of-touch with the concerns
of his employees. Neil was a company man, though.
In the handful of jobs Ajay had worked during and after high school, he had learned to identify company men. They never laughed at jokes about the company, never made jokes about the company, and always seemed to have a rosy outlook about the workload or task in front of them. The company man never used sarcasm to describe the day, the customers, or the big bosses.
“I hope you realize that such a category is not limited to men,” said his father one night after dinner. The two of them had been putting away dishes, and Ajay took the opportunity to bring up his theory.
“Yes, I realize,” he said.
His father looked at him. “Is there something wrong with being a company man?”
“It seems unnatural,” said Ajay. “They never complain.”
“I see.” His father handed Ajay the shish kabob skewers. They’d grilled vegetables over an open flame that night, long a favorite of Ajay’s since the third or fourth grade.
His father moved to the metal wall hooks by the back door.
“Tell me,” he said, dutifully arranging the kitchen towels to dry. “How long is it that you have worked at one of these jobs? I mean the longest.”
Ajay thought about this for a moment. “Five months . . . the shoe store.”
“Is it maybe possible that you just haven’t gotten to know any of these people well enough for them to complain in front of you?”
Ajay watched him remove his apron, his weathered hands deftly folding the cloth. There were times when these discussions
with his father confounded him in a way that few other things could. He had no answer to this question.
His father shrugged. “Or maybe they think you’re a company
man yourself. Ever considered that?”
“They know I’m not.”
“Are you sure?”
Ajay thought about the rising amount of sick days he’d been using courtesy of his gift. “Pretty sure.”
“Well, Vijay has been at his job for almost a whole year. Maybe you should ask him how he does it.”
Ajay frowned. The thought of getting advice from his younger brother sickened him, and he was even more bothered
by the idea of his father suggesting it. It was as if the universe were turned upside down, and the righteous people were being punished.
Ajay stared at the dry erase board which remained devoid of solutions. The door whipped open, and Vijay stood there, surprised.
“What the hell are you doing home?” said his brother, annoyance
in his voice. “You’re supposed to be working.”
“You missed shish kabob for dinner,” said Ajay, calmly.
“So what?”
“So get out of my room.”
Vijay swatted the dry erase marker out of Ajay’s hand, sending it flying into the wall. It left a light blue dot before landing
quietly on the carpet.
“What was that for?” Ajay screamed. He stood up and moved toward his brother, who’d begun rifling through the closet.
“Your clothes suck,” said Vijay, a tone of resignation in his voice. “No wonder you don’t have a girlfriend.”
Ajay stared at his younger brother, who wore a white tank top, blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up, black tennis shoes, and his hair greased into a ducky pompadour. Vijay had been looking more and more like he’d traveled from some strange, unknown part of Chennai which had been dipped into a fifty-year-old vat of American teenage hoodlums. It had started with the job at the auto parts warehouse on Route 1, a series
of self-imposed makeovers capped by the dinner table announcement about answering only to the name Vic. Vijay/Vic had become something too difficult to understand. Ajay walked over and gruffly pushed his brother away from the closet.
“Really?” said Vic, eyes widening in surprise. “You’re going
to fight me?” His voice was full of condescension.
Ajay had not thought of it that way, but as soon as the words were spoken, he knew it was true. He clumsily swung a fist at his brother’s face.
“Tool,” said Vijay, ducking. He backpedaled, grinning.
Ajay froze, confused. “Tool? What the hell does that mean?”
Vijay bobbed and weaved around him, back and forth in a half circle. “Virgin!”
Irritation washed through Ajay. It felt like a silly game, and he wanted it to be finished. He was not worried about the prospect of pain; this was not what bothered him. It was more the satisfaction that Vijay would derive from landing a blow, the grin of pride covering his face afterward. Ajay could not allow that to happen; it was that simple. He took a long, deep breath through his nostrils, and then he opened his mouth wide and let it all go.
His brother yelped as the vomit splattered the center of his white tank top. Ajay waited, expressionless, expecting Vijay to swing at him with his fists. But his brother turned and ran from the room, emitting a strange whine as he went. The noise continued up the hallway until Ajay could hear the kitchen screen door clanging. After that, there was only the sound of indistinguishable cursing from the backyard.
Ajay wiped his mouth and returned to the paltry solutions on his dry erase board. Another vow had been broken, the self-imposed rule never to use the special gift at home. He was not sure what this signified. The derision in his brother’s voice was to blame, and it worried him that he could not withstand
the criticism of a fool.
At DrugBox, the image of Vijay’s face, that tremendous look of horror as he was sprayed with the special gift, came repeatedly into Ajay’s head. He snuck out of the employee break area and entered the narrow corridor between the back of the pharmacy and loading dock. No one else was around. Ajay tiptoed over to an electrical box and located the cord for the corporate music player. It led to a giant automated digital rack which appeared to be playing song number 118, whatever that was. He knew only that its histrionic singer had been the last straw, spurring him into action as she whined about “cocktails, tattered veils, and psychic jails.” The digital rack was linked directly to the store’s broadcast system, and so Ajay unplugged the device and substituted his own iPod loaded with Mozart and Bach and Beethoven and Handel—whatever he could find—all the way up to Debussy, Satie, and Stravinsky. He extracted a roll of black electrical tape from his pocket and sealed the connection to the stereophonic system.
After that, he cut a hole in the drywall with his blue Cub Scout knife and slid his portable song player inside.
Ajay nearly galloped down the narrow passageway as he headed back to the employee break room. Already he could hear the beautiful strains of Clair de Lune, that haunting piano which always reminded him of Independence Day with his parents, fireworks lighting up the Potomac River. His brother had been away, a summer basketball camp perhaps, or a rec center dance. He could not remember, and so he’d been free to enjoy the music that the adults enjoyed; his atypical teenage
taste no longer had to remain hidden. Boys who liked Brahms were not ridiculed by real people.
He strode into the store proper, with the song rambling upward, hitting its stride, the piano filling the once stricken stereophonic speakers with the kind of glowing life that they’d been invented for, and it seemed to him that everything wrong with the store was now gone, evaporated along with those odious pop songs which had plagued them all. He made his way triumphantly up the paper goods aisle, marveling ever-so-briefly at the remarkable sale on picnic plates, and then, just as the Debussy gave way to Sheep May Safely Graze, that fifth movement in Bach’s cantata, Kim Hardwicke suddenly
appeared before him, her ponytail still bouncing after an abrupt stop.
“Hi, Ajay!”
He was too happy to speak, and he did not even realize that he had a silly grin pasted across his face.
“What’s wrong?” Her green eyes seemed filled with warmth. She was the kindest, most beautiful woman he had ever met.
He looked up at the ceiling, the lilting rhythm of the aria flowing above. Emotion swelled within him.
“It is a great day,” he said.
“I know,” she smiled. “Neil gave me a promotion.”
“At last,” he said, grandly, though seeming not to hear her. He marched forward in step with the tempo of the song, “at last we can work like civilized human beings.”
“What?”
He was focused on the bouncy rhythm of the aria. It made him think of children in colonial villages running toward the seaside, the spring sun warming their cheeks.
Kim followed him up the aisle, still somewhat energized, despite her confusing exchange with the head cashier.
“I’m going to be working up front with you,” she said. “No more inventory!”
He spun around, the news finally registering.
“You are?”
She nodded merrily. “Starting tonight.”
It seemed too good to be true. Everything was coming together, and now he wondered why he had waited so long to step up and exert himself. If only Vijay/Vic had insulted him sooner! The music was swirling above, Rossini, and it filled the store with stereophonic joy. What could be better than to learn on this occasion that the splendid, glorious Kim would be by his side from now on, sharing the bliss? At last, all was right in the world.
And then it occurred to him. Kim would be by his side from now on. That masterful beast Neil had dealt a crushing blow not unlike a lowly pawn taking a king.
“You heard the news?”
The DrugBox manager appeared from behind a rather large display of Funyuns, one of the American things whose appeal Ajay had never been able to grasp. Fried corn shaped like onion rings?
Neil stood there, his fingers absentmindedly tracing the rim of his new goatee. He was acting calmly, though unrepentant,
about his shrewd maneuvering. With Kim in Ajay’s sightline, and, more importantly, vice versa, things were going
to change. Ajay felt the elation draining from his body, the music above no longer the salve he had envisioned. It would not be long, he knew, before the manager noticed that the soundtrack from headquarters had been replaced, and once this happened, there were no options for Ajay remaining. With Kim standing there all the while, it’d be impossible to use his special gift to escape without alienating her forever, and the insightful, diabolical Neil had realized this.
“Are you ready to begin her training?” said the manager.
He gestured toward Kim, who stood there, attentive, her face filled with life.
Ajay nodded in silence. He lifted up the divider and led the girl behind the counter with its two front registers: one for each of them. They were sequestered from the rest of the store.
Neil grabbed a clipboard which had been sitting atop a stack of canned beer in packages of twelve.
“Oh,” he said, turning back around, “I forgot to ask . . .are you feeling better today?”
“Yes, better,” conceded Ajay.
“Good,” said Neil, and he disappeared with his clipboard.
Ajay wondered how long it would be until the manager finished the victory. As he listened to the music above, absent
of its usual hyperbolic lyrics about romance and love, he found himself woefully on edge, aware that an end to the sublime was coming, that Neil would return everything to the way it had been before and that escape no longer existed. As Ajay fretted about how much time he had left until the horror resumed, maybe minutes, maybe even seconds, he suddenly realized that Kim still stood there next to him, grinning as she awaited instructions. Her smile was beautiful.