Aphorisms from the Lyceum
Among my tutors when I was a boy were three who almost
certainly never thought of me as their pupil: a nondescript man who lived
across the street,
his wife, and a ventriloquist's dummy.
The dummy was the host of a late-night radio program called "Baldy's Nightcap." His show was nonstop talk, a monologue, a seamless stream of Baldy's reminiscences, thoughts, and feelings. He was a master of the art of frankness, of revelation, and I wanted to learn the trick of it.
The man who lived across the street, Roger Jerrold, was, I believed, a spy, but he kept it hidden behind a seamless front of conventional behavior. He was a master of the art of concealment, and I wanted to learn the trick of it.
Because the spy business required a lot of travel, Mr. Jerrold was rarely around. His wife, Marilyn, was left alone for days and even weeks at a time. She was a pretty brunette with a trim figure. I thought about her quite a lot, especially on rainy days.
On rainy days when Mr. Jerrold's car was not in the driveway, I would cross the street to visit the Jerrolds' two boys, who were younger than I. Often I would play marbles with them indoors, within a ring of string that we laid out on the living room rug. If Mrs. Jerrold was passing when I bent over to take a shot, I could see some distance up her skirt. The effort required to obtain this view affected my shooting, giving me a handicap that made my games with the boys closer than they would otherwise have been.
In shooting position, I could also see under the living room sofa, and one rainy day I discovered a tape recorder under there. This was a surprise, because almost no one had a tape recorder in those days. They were specialized gear, little used by the general public but widely used, of course, by spies.
Mrs. Jerrold paused as she was passing and said, "That's quite a position you've twisted yourself into."
"I was-ah-looking under the sofa," I said.
"Oh, really? See anything interesting?"
"A tape recorder," I said.
"A tape recorder? " She dropped to the floor and looked under the sofa. "What is that doing there?" she wondered aloud.
"Do you think I could try using it?" I asked.
"You can have it, for all I care," she said.
"Well, no, I guess not. It's Roger's. But I never see him using it, and it can't be getting much use under there, so I don't see why you shouldn't use it. Be my guest."
I slid it out from under the sofa. I opened one of the boxes beside it and found inside it a reel of brown recording tape.
The reel fit onto a hub on the top of the recorder. On a metal plate riveted to the lid was a diagram showing how to thread the tape along a pathway from the full reel to an empty one on the other hub. Eventually, I got the tape threaded in a way that seemed almost right.
I found a pair of earphones clipped into the top of the case, put them on, and plugged them in. I shifted the machine to "play," the reels turned, the tape began running, and somewhere along the tape's path the recorder worked the magic of playing sound, but that aspect of the machine-its essence, after all-was to me what technologists call a "black box," a device that we can appreciate for its product without understanding its process, its mystery. Ask a black box, "How do you do that?" and it answers with a silence that seems to say, "I do what I do, and you do not need to know the trick of it."
Through the earphones, as if inside my head, I heard Mrs. Jerrold's voice.
"Oh, yes," she said, huskily. "Again. Again."
I listened to enough of the tape to conclude that Mrs. Jerrold had mastered the art of frankness to a degree that even Baldy the Dummy would have envied. More remarkable still was the fact that she had kept this talent of hers so completely hidden from me. She must have learned the art of concealment from her husband.
I said, suddenly, "Hey-I've got to go."
I put my jacket on and zipped it up, rewound the tape and put it back into its box, closed the tape recorder and pushed it under the sofa, twisted myself into shooting position, and-working under the sofa-shoved the tape box under my jacket. I took it home with me, even though I didn't have a machine to play it on, because I knew that it could teach me things that I wanted to learn.
Other Short Stories by Eric Kraft