The Static of the Spheres
Chapter 4: What I Wanted
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AND GIGGLY, Eliza and I returned to the living room after my bath and settled
ourselves in front of the new radio. I was wearing a white terrycloth
robe. Eliza tousled my hair and hugged my shoulders. Mr. Beaker
looked up from his lists, acknowledged us with a smile, and went back to
Eliza turned the radio on, and began twisting the dial, exploring for signals. For much of the time while she explored, she was between stations, and the living room was full of the noises that lie between stations on a radio dial, noises that are drowned out when we come upon a strong signal. Some of those noises come from within the receiver itself, produced by the operation of the receiver’s circuits, noises from within the machine. Other noises come from outside the receiver. The sources of some of those are local, familiar, homely. These may, for example, be produced by the ignition systems of passing Studebakers or by the motor in a refrigerator or by a toaster. The sources of others, however, are distant, exotic, intriguing. These may, for example, be produced by stations too far away for a clear signal to reach us, stations calling from God knows where, with voices as weak as that of a boy calling against the wind. Or they may originate in electrical discharges from the sun, from other stars, other galaxies: the pervasive and indecipherable, eternal and inestimable noise, the static of the spheres.
While Eliza and I are curled up on the floor twiddling the dial, searching for a signal, let me pause for a moment to plant in your mind the notion that our senses, like radio receivers, pick up lots of noise, and that in our perception of events the truth is sometimes nearly buried by static. Let me suggest, too, that in remembering the things that have happened to us, the people who have spoken to us, the things that they have said, we introduce new static, and that as time goes by we may even find, as I did with the whine from my little Philco, that the noise has become stronger than the signal.
“Oh, I know what we can do,” cried Eliza suddenly. “We can follow the new year as it approaches us, and then follow it across the country.”
“Calm down, you two,” said Mr. Beaker. He stood up from his work and stretched. He chuckled indulgently. “You seem quite worked up. Look at you. You’re flushed and giggly.”
Eliza looked at me and reddened a little more. So did I. We giggled again. Mr. Beaker walked over beside us and rumpled Eliza’s hair. He took another log from the wood box and drew back the mesh curtain that hung in front of the fire.
“Peter,” said Mr. Beaker. His back was toward us. He was working at the fire, using tongs to rearrange the logs. There was, it seemed to me, something stern, something menacing in his voice.
“Yes?” I answered. The word leaped from me like a small frightened animal. My heart began to beat quickly, and my voice seemed to tremble. I threw a wild look at Eliza. She made a motion with both hands, as if pushing against a plump, resilient pillow of air, and I could tell at once that she meant, “Slow down. Calm down.” I cleared my throat, and asked again, in a steadier voice, “Yes?”
Mr. Beaker spun around to look at me. The fire blazed suddenly, and the room filled with its heat. Perspiration formed on my forehead and upper lip. “Is something wrong with you, Peter?” he asked. “You sound odd. You almost sound frightened.”
I smiled at him. The smile was meant to be that smile of amused incredulity that we adults have learned to affect when we are caught doing something that we shouldn’t. For some reason, we continue to expect that smile to work for us, even though, as soon as we see it on anyone else, we say to ourselves, “This guy is as guilty as sin.” I thought that I had shaped it pretty well, but Mr. Beaker’s look remained one of concern, and when I look at this scene now in my mind’s eye, the smile on my face, the trembling lips, the blinking eyes look as if they belong on a plucky fellow with a noose around his neck.
Mr. Beaker reached toward me suddenly. I raised my hands to ward off the blow that I thought was coming. He reached between my hands and felt my forehead.
“I think he’s running a fever,” he said to Eliza.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said. “He’s still warm from his bath. The whole room was—steamy—very steamy—in there.” She took Mr. Beaker’s hand and held it against her own forehead. “See?” she asked. “I’m a little overheated myself.”
Mr. Beaker smiled and caressed Eliza’s forehead. He leaned forward and kissed the top of her head.
“I was thinking, Peter,” he said, turning to me, “that you ought to do as I am doing. You should decide what you would like to accomplish in the coming year and then, as the year turns, make some small start toward accomplishing it.”
“Maybe he already has,” said Eliza. She looked steadily at me for a moment. The fire was yellow and bright. It flared again, and the heat rushed over me. I thought that there was a good chance that I would either faint or throw up if I didn’t do something—move around a bit, take some deep breaths. I stood up quickly, as if inspired by Mr. Beaker’s suggestion.
“That’s right!” I cried. “You know what I want? I want—” I had spoken too quickly. I had a few ideas about what I wanted—vague ideas, certainly, but ideas just the same—but of the ones that came to mind, none were things that I could announce, or confess, to Mr. Beaker. I certainly could not have said to him, “I want Eliza,” and if somehow I had found it possible to say that, I would not have known how to say to him why I wanted Eliza or exactly what for. My mind hissed and crackled, much like a radio between stations. Now and then a strong, but inexpressible, desire came through as I looked wildly around the room, and at last, to my relief, something came through strong and clear: Gumma’s radio. “—I want a radio like this,” I said.
“That’s good, Peter,” said Mr. Beaker, beaming. “Now you have a goal. Of course, a radio like this is a little beyond your reach, but it is a good sign, I think, that you set your goal high. Now let’s see if we can bring it down to a point where you can, if you extend yourself, if you really stretch out, grasp it. How would you like a small radio that you could keep on a bedside table at home? If you were to begin working at odd jobs—”
“I already have a radio on my bedside table at home,” I said. A great many emotions had run through me while Mr. Beaker had been talking. First, there was passion, a passion that I could not express because there was no acceptable object for it. Then there was fear, the fear that the passion would be discovered if I didn’t hide it somehow. Next there was pride, pride that arose when Mr. Beaker told me that a radio like Gumma’s was a little beyond my reach, as if he were saying that a woman, a grown woman like Eliza, was a little beyond my reach. And then there was surprise, for I discovered after I had said it that I really did want a radio like Gumma’s. I now burned with a desire for such a radio, so passionate a desire that it surpassed anything I had felt for Eliza.
“Ah,” said Mr. Beaker, “but suppose that you were to build a radio yourself. That would be something quite different from the radio that you have at home.”
If I were responding to that remark now, I would say, “No, it wouldn’t, Dudley. It would be essentially the same: it would be the same in purpose and in function. It would pull in the same frightening programs about shipwrecked boys, the same music, the same comedy programs, and I have no doubt that it would pull in the same annoying static. I know why you said what you did, Dudley, and I’m surprised, surprised and disappointed, for I know that what made you make that remark was the same crazy idea that inspires those people who praise a thing—a dining-room table, say—simply because someone has made it himself, attaching to it a value that is not derived from any improvement in form or function over any other dining-room table, a value derived merely from the way in which it was made. What did you take me for, an idiot? I may have been just a kid, but I could see, even then, that any radio that I would build for myself, if I could even imagine building a radio for myself, would differ from the little Philco at home only in being a sloppier job.”
At the time, however, I said, “I want a radio that gets different programs.”
Mr. Beaker began an elaborately simple explanation of the way a radio works, apparently thinking, from my remark, that I imagined that the programs I heard on the radio came from within the radio, and that a different radio would, simply because it was a different radio, play different programs.
“Dudley,” interrupted Eliza, “I think you misinterpreted Peter’s remark, and I think you’re underestimating his understanding.”
“Oh?” said Mr. Beaker. “Am I, Peter?”
“Yeah,” I said. “What I meant is that my radio at home can’t get all the programs that this radio can get.”
“Oh, well—” said Mr. Beaker.
Ah, Beaker, I wish I had you here now. The conversation would be considerably different today from what it was then.
“As I see it, Dudley,” I would say, “a radio is a lot like a pair of ears. With my ears, I can’t hear everything that there is to hear. For one thing, my ears aren’t sensitive enough. Some things are too quiet for me to hear most of the time—for instance, the cat’s stomach. Usually, I don’t hear the cat’s stomach at all, but if I lie on the floor and put my ear right against the cat’s stomach, I can hear a sort of wheezing and rumbling.”
“That’s not a good idea, Peter,” you would say. “Cats generally have fleas—”
“There’s another example,” I’d interrupt. “Fleas make noise too, but we don’t hear them. Little bits of dust crashing into each other when they float in the air would make a hell of a racket if we could hear them.”
“I see what you—”
“Other sounds,” I’d say, firmly, “are too far away to hear. My equipment—my receiving set of ears—is not powerful enough to pick them up. You and I and Eliza, while we were sitting in the living room that New Year’s Eve, knew that Gumma and Guppa were probably laughing and telling stories or playing bridge at the same time, but we couldn’t hear their laughter or their stories or the snap of the cards, could we?”
“Of course not. We—”
“And in the farthest reaches of the heavens, in distant galaxies, stars were exploding, but we couldn’t hear those either, could we?”
“And, more important than any of that, something was happening to Albertine at that time, at that very moment when you and I were going on about the radio, someone was talking to her, or she was thinking about something, or dreaming about something—something was happening to her, Dudley, that would contribute to making her the sweetie she is today, and we didn’t know anything about it. There was no apparatus that would allow us to tune in to the Albertine Show and find out what was happening to her.”
Heh-heh-heh. Oh, I am rolling now, Dud. I can feel myself taking the upper hand, I can feel your grip loosening with each word. Where was I? I did sensitivity. I did power. Range. Range.
“Finally, Dudley,” I would say, “some sounds are outside the range of frequencies of sound that my ears can pick up, just as—”
“Calm down, Peter—”
“—just as some stations were outside the range of the little Philco. Do you understand?”
But at the time, Mr. Beaker just went on and said, “—then what you want is a shortwave radio.”
“I do?” I said, playing the part of naive child as well as it has ever been played.
“Yes, of course,” said Mr. Beaker. “With a shortwave radio, you will be able to pick up conversations among people all over the globe. You’ll hear the babble of many tongues. You may even pick up a few useful phrases.”
He was right, and I knew it, and the prospect of making contact with all the mysterious people out there sold me at once on the idea of a shortwave radio, a radio that would allow me to eavesdrop on the conversations of people in all the quaint countries I had heard about, people whose habitual preoccupations I had come to understand from the phrases that I had heard repeated about them, phrases that classified them according to their national passions: Japanese beetles, French bread, Irish coffee, Spanish fly, Mexican jumping beans, Chinese checkers, British steel, German beer, Russian roulette, Canadian sunsets, Turkish taffy, Swiss cheese, Italian loafers, Polish jokes, Hungarian goulash, Cuban cigars, Siamese twins, Panama hats, Greek statues, Dutch uncles.
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Little Follies is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
“My Mother Takes a Tumble,” “Do Clams Bite?,” “Life on the Bolotomy,” “The Static of the Spheres,” “The Fox and the Clam,” “The Girl with the White Fur Muff,” “Take the Long Way Home,” and “Call Me Larry” were originally published in paperback by Apple-Wood Books.
Little Follies was first published in hardcover by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail the author’s imaginary agent, Alec “Nick” Rafter.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.