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  • That High, Lonesome Sound
  • Garth Risk Hallberg (bio)

Terry had bought the dope fully intending to save it for emergencies. It was the end of the fall semester, and one of his thesis advisees, a December graduate, offered to sell it to him more or less at cost—"a way of saying thanks for all the help, Doc." The thesis itself was beyond saving, it seemed to have been translated from Klingon, and no doubt the administration frowned on narcotics transactions between mentor and mentee. But when one's son was about to ship out for the Gulf, one had to arm oneself against the unimaginable. So Terry exchanged five crisp fifties for two ounces of hydroponic marijuana, and, in a fit of gratitude, bumped the kid up to a gentleman's B. Only for emergencies, he told himself. Just in case.

Of course, in the age of the mauve terror alert, what actually constituted an emergency? Sudden trauma? Prolonged uncertainty? On deployment, Ben severed all lines of communication; not a letter, not a phone call, not a single email reached his father. In theory, silence led to forgetting, but as Walter Benjamin said, nothing that had ever happened was lost for the historian. Artifacts of Ben's adolescence littered the condo like irradiated ash: retainers, guitar picks, the photograph Terry's stepdaughter had stolen, basically, from his ex-wife . . . Passing through the living room, Terry would forget where he'd been going, would find himself studying the miniature son on the mantel, and his stomach would tighten. He would see himself, suddenly, from a vantage point near the roofline. He would hear a voiceover beamed back from the ruins of the future: We regretfully inform you . . . Regret to inform . . .

What the dope did was turn down the volume. On the worst days, when the clock-radio woke him with the deaths of another three or four or ten unnamed servicemen, and however many dozens of unspecified Others, he locked himself up in the study, letting his second wife, Allison, believe he was deep into a monograph. [End Page 120]

By the time summer school started, he was there most mornings, getting high. He would put an electric fan in the window and slap a weathered slab of music on the turntable—one of the Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams records that had seen him through the writing of Tacit Revolutions. He'd bought Ben a guitar that year, by way of apology for the divorce. As his son's big hands picked along with the songs, Terry had taught him how to listen for subtext. Migration patterns in the melodies. Coded messages in the lyrics. Later, remarried and resolved to give fatherhood another shot, he'd sat here with his stepdaughter, yodeling as she practiced her scales. Now, at most, Simone would bang on her bedroom wall and yell for him to turn it down. Terry would lie on the futon, where Ben had slept on Wednesdays and alternating weekends, and draw his knees up to his chest. He would press his nose to the fabric, breathing deep. What one heard these days in the scratched voice of Jimmie Rodgers was the decline of the West, the falling of all things into oblivion. The interior of a joint burned at around 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit—enough to smelt metal. He couldn't imagine making it to September.

"Imagine . . ." he cleared his throat, waiting for his thoughts to snap back into focus. "Imagine everything they taught you in high school was a fairy tale. Imagine, for every Napoleon or Gandhi, ten thousand names wiped from the record. People as real as you or me."

This was his first class of the fall term, but really it could have been the start of any semester since the Carter administration. If a decade had elapsed since the last book had come out; if its title now sounded like a soft-drink slogan; if the weed was doing his oratory no favors, well . . . he'd long since accepted his powerlessness to rouse the undergraduates from their slumber.

"Let's say, for the sake of argument, you've been dropped into the middle of...


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pp. 120-134
Launched on MUSE
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