Thursday, November 13, 2008

The earworm.

The interpreter was lying in bed, staring at his ceiling. It glowed unremitting red, courtesy of his old, savagely bright digital alarm clock. Insomnia was not a rare occurrence, but this instance was worse than most, for it included an earworm, the endless repetition of a portion of a song in his head.

“STUPID SONG!” he yelled. He sat up and hurled his pillow at the clock, which crashed to the floor. 

Something plastic, a switch or button or faceplate, skittered beneath his dresser.

He crawled from bed, hoping he could undo the damage. “Please live,” he begged, holding the pieces in place, pieces that needed glue, and more. The clock had been mortally injured, its glow extinguished. Now the interpreter would worry about not being able to wake up in time for work, assuming he ever fell asleep.

Hours earlier, he had led an evening paddle down the river to the dam. It was a program he usually enjoyed, a family program, three or four families arranged within five or six canoes, slowly winding down a sluggish body of water, past beaver lodges and lush emergent vegetation. There was always a lot to talk about. This time he had a ten-year-old-boy in the bow of his canoe. His name was Brent.

Before the program, Brent’s mother had said to the interpreter, “This is Brent. He was born blind. Could you let him touch the things we are seeing on this trip? Can he ride in your canoe?” Brent wore sunglasses and an adult-sized nylon mesh baseball cap that engulfed most of his small head. He thrust his hand into a space in front of and slightly to the right of the interpreter. The interpreter reached to shake it.

“Sure,” said the interpreter.

“I feel it will be a very good experience,” said Brent, in an oddly formal way.

The interpreter and the program participants walked the trail down to the lake, where the canoes were tethered to the dock. Brent walked between his mother and an older sister, whose arm he held. At the dock, the interpreter gave a rudimentary canoe lesson, which, experience had taught him, was a waste of time. No matter what you told or showed rookie canoeists, they would inevitably become mired in the water lilies, usually within seconds.

The sightless boy had no more difficulty boarding his canoe than anyone else. He sat on the bow seat, running his hands up and down the gunwales, cautiously leaning right and left, getting the feel of the craft. “Give me my paddle,” he said.

Brent’s mother and a sister took another canoe. There were six canoes in all, mostly couples, mostly middle-aged. It was a warm, still evening with only a few, wispy cirrus clouds.

The interpreter, despite his bowman’s unpredictable, experimental paddling, herded the other canoes through the worst of the water lilies, into the slow-flowing river. There they stopped several times, rafted together, to smell the licorice of the lily flowers, to feel the slimy undersides of their leaves, to stroke the beaver pelt the interpreter produced from a box beneath his seat. He reached to a lodge and removed a loose stick with ends gnawed to rough tapers, and passed it around.

Then he had them listen. Dusk was approaching, time for the courtship flight of the nighthawks, the high altitude “peent...peent...peent,” call of the male, followed by the farting “thrum” of its feathers as it braked at the bottom of its dive.

But Brent keyed into the most obvious sound, which was generated just beyond the southern edge of the park. “Is that a waterfall?” he asked.

“Sadly no, it’s the Trans Canada Highway,” said the interpreter.

“To me, it’s a waterfall,” said Brent.

“I’ll go along with that,” said a woman in another canoe.

The interpreter re-described the nighthawk flight, trying to re-pique their interest. They listened again, for a minute or more, but apart from the imagined waterfall there was silence.

Then the interpreter became aware of a soft murmuring. It was evasive, hard to pinpoint, until it became louder. It was coming from Brent. The boy was humming, a melody vaguely familiar, gathering and building, but not loud or continuous enough to be recognized until he threw his head back and practically shouted,

“THERE WAS SOMETHING IN THE AIR THAT NIGHT
THE STARS WERE BRIGHT, FERNANDO!
THEY WERE SHINING THERE FOR YOU AND ME
FOR LIBERTY, FERNANDO!”
Then he stopped.

The necks in all the other canoes craned in the various necessary directions to stare. There were a few suppressed snickers, no one wanting to laugh out loud at a blind child, but then, seeing the obvious glee on Brent’s face, everyone laughed.

Brent sang again, the next verse, and then paused. “Now everybody sing!” he exclaimed, and they did.

“THERE WAS SOMETHING IN THE AIR THAT NIGHT
THE STARS WERE BRIGHT, FERNANDO!
THEY WERE SHINING THERE FOR YOU AND ME
FOR LIBERTY, FERNANDO!”

And Brent took off:

“THOUGH I NEVER THOUGHT THAT WE COULD LOSE
THERE’S NO REGRET
IF I HAD TO DO THE SAME AGAIN
I WOULD, MY FRIEND, FERNANDO.”

The interpreter looked to Brent’s mother, who was rapt, not the least bit embarrassed, watching her son perform so brilliantly in this most unlikely of places.


The song finished, everyone clapped. No nighthawks were seen or heard.

After the canoes had returned to the dock and the participants disembarked, and as the interpreter was picking up life jackets and paddles, Brent and his mother approached.

“Thank you, that was great,” said the mother. “That was perfect.”

“He certainly made it special,” said the interpreter. He realized he had excluded the boy from his comment. He dropped the life jackets and placed his hand on Brent’s shoulder. “It was fun meeting you,” he said.

“I’m known for being fun to meet,” said Brent. “See ya.”

The interpreter put away the paddles and life jackets, then ran the chain through the canoes to lock them to the tiered trailer on which they were stored. He locked the nature house, walked to the train station, and rode home to his apartment feeling sort of happy about things. After a snack of re-heated Chinese food followed by perusal of the latest issue of a herpetology journal, the interpreter went to bed. He slept soundly for two and a half hours. Then he awoke to that song.

THERE WAS SOMETHING IN THE AIR THAT NIGHT
THE STARS WERE BRIGHT, FERNANDO!
THEY WERE SHINING THERE FOR YOU AND ME
FOR LIBERTY, FERNANDO!

Again and again and again and again.

That’s when he murdered his clock.

The interpreter slid open his balcony door and stepped outside, into the cool night air. He took several deep breaths, and then thought he heard something, something in the sky. The peent of nighthawks? He strained.

The chorus in his head re-erupted,
THERE WAS SOMETHING IN THE AIR THAT NIGHT
THE STARS WERE BRIGHT, FERNANDO!

He fled the balcony.

The interpreter stared at the colourless ceiling with his head clamped in headphones, back-washing his brain with Dark Side of the Moon on repeat until orange daylight poked through the blinds and it was time to get up.

7 comments:

DJ said...

That's hilarious, except that now I'm going to have that song stuck in my head for the next three days. LOL!

Amy said...

Oooooh nooooo, I've had that very song play over, and over, and over...now I just know I won't be able to get it out of my head for days!

Aunt Debbi/kurts mom said...

Very funny, but you have passed that earworm to all who read this. I will not murder my alarm clock.

Susan Tomlinson said...

A great story. :-)

BerryBird said...

Another great interpreter tale! I had one of those super bright alarm clocks once. I used to drape a tissue over the numbers for respite from the glare, but that tended to make telling the time more difficult.

Amy said...

Great Earworm tale! The poor innocent clock, though. Neither man nor beast (nor appliance?) is safe when a song clamps on to your brain and won't let go.

There's a nifty write up of earworms on this page from the University of Cincinnati:
http://www.business.uc.edu/earworms/101
I personally love the term "Cognitive Itch" - it sums things up quite nicely.

Hugh said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Just so you know, I reinfected myself with the song by typing out the story.