Three Stories: Our Libretto Conundrum, The Songs Our Local Birds Always Sing, Catching the Rollers

Three stories originally published in Cincinnati Review #8.2, winter 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Our Libretto Conundrum

I think about the great man’s biography sometimes. Few photographs exist of him during his days as a shepherd, but the story is so familiar—has become such an ingrained part of our country’s story, our aspirational dream—that I can imagine it quite easily. Or maybe it’s because I myself am an opera composer that I can picture him out on the prairie, riding his motorcycle, herding sheep, writing libretti. His legendary ingenuity was intrinsic to his way of doing things even then; he knew that his best ideas always came to him while he was out herding—out in the vast landscape of our country’s northern plains; out in the solitude of that hard and lonely work—so he took an old lap desk he’d found abandoned behind the town library and attached it to his motorcycle’s handlebars. An intellectual, an artist, a man of the land, he could do his work and create his art without risk of harming anyone. He would be ready for inspiration whenever it hit. If the future president fell deep into a spell of creative output, writing while riding, the only possible victims of his distracted state were the sheep; and the great man, being legendarily thrifty as well, would always eat the sheep he accidentally ran over.

Later came the great man’s spectacular, breathtaking—erotic, some are even compelled to say—rise to power. He ran for mayor of an economically battered but politically critical northern-plains city. His budget was pocket change; his custom of symbolically wearing a blindfold while debating his opponents generated his earliest mentions in our national press. After that, his fame felt unstoppable, essential, natural, inevitable. An enterprising journalist revealed that all the libretti of the three operas that were revitalizing the theater district of our capital had been written pseudonymously by this handsome, modest, rugged, upstart shepherd-mayor from the sticks. Then that serendipitous day: On a visit to the city for the theater community’s annual awards ceremony, he singlehandedly guided a sinking ferryboat filled with elderly tourists out of danger and into our capital’s harbor using only his wits and his knowledge of motorcycles. The opera he subsequently wrote about the episode—The Great Ferryboat Rescue—quickly outstripped the successes of all his previous works, becoming a commercial triumph. The shepherd-librettist never fell in with the capital city’s political handlers and talent managers, no matter how much they begged; he and a small team of writers and ranchers from his hometown managed all his affairs, both in opera and in politics. In nearly everyone’s eyes— to everyone’s astonishment—he stayed true to his prairie values.

After that came his ascension to national office, in spite of the hate-filled campaign launched against him. The opposition party didn’t just cast doubt on his leadership potential but essentially damned all creative work, and all ranch work, as feminine, destructive, and evil; the lipstick, they whispered, that was painted on the mouth of hell. It was a problem, we knew—the hate dragged us all down with it—but one that would be gone after the inauguration.

Our real problem became apparent after his first six months in office. The writing of libretti had become enormously popular with young people during the campaign, but half a year into the president’s first term, the specific combination of motorcycles and opera started to take off as the favorite hobby of seemingly everyone in our capital city. Hence our current, two-part plight: first, the incredible rise in libretti in need of being set to music. Some composers claim that this is a boon, as it means that any composer, regardless of talent, is suddenly able to charge outrageous fees. But my most talented colleagues, the genuinely good composers of my acquaintance, call it a nightmare. The sheer volume of work being thrust at us—mailed to our agents, handed to us in person at restaurants, left in unkempt piles on our stoops— means it’s impossible to separate the good writing from the awful.

The second part of the plight is the incredible rise in motorcycle accidents, resulting in a terrible rise in traffic fatalities, as well as paper cuts among passersby. The president’s political party, off the record, calls it a conundrum: Were he to stop writing libretti on his motorcycle—and he often retreats from the capital to his beloved prairies to clear his head, to think about policy, and to write—he might save lives. But if he were to do so, the shepherd-librettist might lose his defining characteristic, his chief quality, which might mean his party would lose power. I think about the great man’s biography sometimes; times like right now, as I sit in a traffic jam that I am confident has resulted from yet another librettist motorcycle crash. It’s times like these that I wish that the president would indeed change his ways—or do something, anything, to make our predicament go away. I stick my head out the window of my car and crane forward to see if I can spot what the matter might be; sure enough, up ahead, I can make out two helmeted men arguing, poking each other in the chest with their pens, a flurry of pages at their feet.

As an opera composer myself, I could probably dispatch the problem quickly and easily if I just got out of my car and approached the two. But these days, I keep my composing skills a secret. I have very nearly abandoned my art and despair of ever composing another opera. This is my failure as a citizen. The social contract needs me, needs my staves and clefs, and I refuse it. I’d like to think that this failing is not intrinsic to me; but today, at least, I am not a great man. I join in the chorus of all the cars around me, leaning on my horn as hard and long as I am able.

The Songs Our Local Birds Always Sing

My wife and I are in the middle of an argument when I accidentally use the word in our language that is so beautiful the people of our country, throughout our entire history, have only ever made use of it once. A flush comes over my wife’s face, as if I’d just told her that I wanted to do something to her mother that our shepherds, lonely out in our country’s endless grassy highlands, are rumored to do sometimes with their sheep.

“Please tell me I misheard you,” she says. “Please.” She shoots a look at the windowsill; I know exactly what question, what fear, has come into her mind: Could this government be listening the way the last one did? We feel less monitored than we did before the transition—a transition that was surprisingly peaceful—but still, we worry.

“It was an accident,” I say. “It’s no big deal.” I want to believe this, although my heart has started to beat faster. The paradox of the word is that although we’ve only made use of it once, we use it all the time; or rather, we sing it all the time. It is the third word of the fourth line of the fourth verse, the last verse, of our national anthem. Our national anthem has always been one of our most popular songs, dating back to before we were a country, dating back even to the origin of our language itself. “Think of it as me singing,” I say. I smile. “Maybe I was singing.”

That song is the only instance of our rare and beautiful word’s use. Before our country’s recorded history began, back before the myths and the hieroglyphed scraps of bark on display in the National Museum, we have always collectively agreed that no one could ever use that word in any other instance. No one ever did; no one ever does. This tradition has become more formalized under recent governments and, as a consequence, much less pleasant. Our restraint hasn’t changed, but it has felt less voluntary, exercised less out of love and more out of worry, more out of fear, more due to the threat of rumored and unspecifically terrible consequences.

“We sing all the time,” I say, still hoping to salvage the situation. “You often catch me humming, even when I don’t realize I’m doing it.”

“The birdfeeders,” my wife says, still staring at the windowsill. “When was the last time you refilled them? Don’t you think they’re running a little low?” Without taking her eyes off the spot where the last government was fond of hiding microphones, she starts to unbutton her shirt. “Do we have any birdseed left in the shed?” She quickly removes her shirt, her bra, her skirt. She strips naked. “I think we might. We should check. I love our local birds. I love it when they come to visit us. I love the songs they always sing.” She walks over to me and starts to strip off my clothes as well.

I am reminded, as I often am, of why I married her: She is unfathomably clever. We both keep talking about the birds and our love for them, a conversation that will naturally segue into the lyrics of our national anthem; our nakedness will, likewise, naturally segue into intercourse, one of the approved situations—sexual intimacy, war, athletic events, our high holy days—for the singing of the anthem. My slip can therefore be considered foreplay. At least, that’s my hope, my wife’s hope. Our defense, should we ever find ourselves listening to a recording of this conversation, surrounded by officially sanctioned fervor, in need of a way to defend ourselves.

As she bends gracefully over the kitchen table, as I mount her, as we make love, as we sing, I am reminded of how I sometimes think that there is even more beauty in our ancient pact about this word than there is in the word itself. Grammatically, in the structure of that line of the song, the word is an enigma—it could function as a verb or an adjective; it could mean “doomed” or “render more beautiful”—but I sometimes think that it’s no greater an enigma than the grammar and meaning of anything we ever say to each other, to strangers or to friends, in public or in private. In any event, as our singing brings us line by line, verse by verse, closer and closer to the word itself, I hope I make my wife pregnant.

Catching the Rollers

I was at work, waiting in the bulrushes by the lake at the bottom of the hill. I’d been there for only two hours before I spotted my first catch of the night. The hill was lit with klieg lights, mounted on the roof of the porch of the nursing home, the porch that faced out over the water. My catch was backlit by those lights, so I could only see a silhouette, but it appeared to be a man. It was usually men who made the attempt. The women were more prone to try to get across the lake by bribery or covert supplication.

Some nights I had no catch; the most I’d ever had on a shift was eleven. One catch two hours in was decent. It justified my job. I watched the old man roll up to the lip of the hill, then pause; he appeared to be readying himself mentally for the plunge. It was a long, steep hill. Taking a moment to steady one’s nerves was understandable.

The original designers of the nursing home had had what seemed like a good idea: a home on the hill with a view, on a clear day, of the shore on the lake’s far side—the border of the country next door, the watery edge of Victory Field. Victory Field was one of the holiest sites in the world to the people of my country. Our founding fathers had all died in battle there, defending, long ago, the border that the lake’s far coast defined. They were buried where they’d fallen. The graveyard, being on the far side of the lake, was therefore within the boundary of our neighbor; relations, in the generations since then, had thawed somewhat but were still far from what most would call friendly. Nevertheless, every citizen of my country wanted to lie as near to the bodies of our nation’s heroes as possible. For my people, there was no greater honor.

The designers had thought that Victory Field’s proximity would be a selling point. Which it was, but not in the way they’d expected. They’d thought the old folks would be satisfied simply to gaze across the water at our heroes all day; they hadn’t guessed what an irresistible temptation it would be. The residents—as I said, the men in particular—would, when given half a chance, roll their wheelchairs down the hill and attempt to hurl themselves into the lake in the hope that the waters would take them, kill them, and then toss their bodies up on the opposite shore, where, according to the laws of that country—an irreligious place, we all knew, but a law-abiding one—the government would be obligated to bury the waterlogged body without paperwork or complaint.

All this made the home feel even more like a prison than homes ordinarily do. All rumors were whispered; all concerned escape plots. Who would be the next to make a go of it? My job title there was Beach Attendant, but that was euphemistic. My nicknames were more accurate: Suicide Scout, Deathwatch Guard, Roller Catcher. It was a good job. I had to be careful. I had to be nimble enough to catch the old folks before they hit the water, but gentle enough when I tackled them that I didn’t break anything.

At last, over the edge: Here came tonight’s first catch. I could tell that he’d been coached—he relaxed into the roll, kept his arms loose, just off to the sides of his wheels, ready to steer and recover from the bumpy terrain at a moment’s notice. Novices would panic and freeze up, grip their wheels in terror; this only brought them down long before they reached the bulrushes. They made my job easy. This man was going to make me work for it. As he gained speed, I readied myself, adjusting my position as he wove his way toward me. A few moments before he hit the grasses, I jumped, caught his torso with my arm outstretched like a clothesline, and brought his body and his chair backwards and down into the dark, cold mud.

He was still in a sitting position in his wheelchair, just ninety degrees off from upright, his back parallel to the ground, his feet up in the air. He started to cry. Not all cried. I pulled my arm off his body and lifted myself up to get a look at him, make sure I hadn’t broken anything.

That was when my heart jumped into my throat. This was my father’s best friend. I’d gone fishing with this man out on the lake. This was the man who’d first pointed out to me the distant stone markers of Victory Field, the man who’d eulogized my father so eloquently two decades previous. I hadn’t known he lived in the nursing home, but perhaps he was a recent arrival. Many men tried to make a go of it within days of arriving. For the first time in my working life, I felt guilty.

Ordinarily, at this point in the catch, I would give a speech. But that night, I couldn’t do it. My father’s friend’s eyes were shut as he cried—I don’t think he’d recognized me yet. I hope he hadn’t. I put my hand behind his head and gently lifted him and his chair upright again—not an easy task, especially with the bag of coins hanging around his neck to pay his buriers. I started slowly pushing him, rolling him backward up the hill, my arms outstretched, gripping the arms of his chair, my head down in the hope that he would never see my face. He kept crying. Looking down at the ground, I could see the long shadow of his arm stretching out behind me, the shadow from the klieg lights, the arm pointed out across the water.