A man came to my office and asked me to type something. It was for him. For work. He was tall and had green eyes and seemed right at home in the dim light.
"I am in possession of a particular recording," he said. Formally. Quietly. "From it, I request that you create a transcript."
I said I would. That I would try. That any attendant fees would be assessed upon completion.
"Be careful," he said. "Others have made similar attempts. And it appears no one can quite understand."
I had a hunch about these "others." About the smoother operators. The slick computer experts with whom he had probably visited during the days and weeks prior. I use a typewriter. I transfer everything to cassette. I can properly transcribe the sound of wind, and doing so relies much more heavily upon "p" and "f" than on "w" and "s" and "h." It is a more delicate matter than you might think. And I wasn't afraid.
The first time, listening, I cleared out space on a desk. There is a proper way of doing things. I set down a yellow legal pad and laid a blue pen at a 45-degree angle in the exact center. I put on headphones. Then, I plugged them in. I heard static. Odd whispering noises. There were pops at inappropriate moments and in no discernable pattern. A loud and violent snap near its conclusion. I tried to filter out the background and focus on a single voice. A woman. Sighing. Crying. Looking at a set of stars and letting out a half-silent expression of awe. Or fear. Pleasure perhaps or maybe complete and astonished ignorance. I made a variety of notes. Listened again. Removed the typewriter from the shelf and then created an inferior but representative combination of letters. It was a simulacrum. It was a shadow. It was also, I was sure, the closest anyone had come to whatever it, in reality, was.
He came again the next morning. With a cup of coffee this time and a rolled up newspaper under his arm. It was raining. I had the shades drawn. A phonograph was playing Woody Guthrie, and I was trying to make it read just right. As an exercise. For fun. The way some people do crosswords.
"I would like to know if it's ready," he said.
I told him it was. I handed it over. I watched him look and saw his nose move only slightly.
"This doesn't appear to be correct. This is not what I was hoping to see."
"It's good," I said. "It's as close as anyone will ever get."
He sighed. Brought the coffee slowly to his mouth. Only spoke before drinking. He said, "I am not certain you understand. I came based upon a reputation. I possessed a certain expectation of quality. Which expectation, regrettably, remains unfulfilled." His voice was louder. Took on a subtler edge. Felt different in a way that few others would have perceived. I'd call it panic. Frustration. Some combination relying more heavily on the former.
"If you like," I said. Out of mere politeness. "I can listen again. Occasionally, there are nuances. Details that escape even professional ears. My record would indicate, however. Let's just say that my initial assumptions are nearly always correct."
"I am accustomed to certainty. I firmly expect that it be provided."
I wanted to say it was impossible. That such demands were unreasonable to the point of the being rude. I kept quiet. I nearly swallowed my tongue. I agreed. Silently. To listen again.
The woman, she sounded accusatory. And near death. There was something vaguely sinister and perhaps also macabre. She was dancing, I think. She was smiling. She had a mouth full of crumbs, and they were beginning to form shapes at her feet. Her voice was dynamic and moving in ways I had not heard. I did what I could. I employed creative arrangements. Open spacing and otherwise inappropriate combinations. I felt, this time, as though I'd bridged the gap. I felt as if I'd brought her to life.
When he returned, he opened the door only partially. Slid his body through a narrow space and tried to block off any ambient light. There was the faint smell of mildew. Perhaps it was always there.
"You have tried again?" he asked.
"As requested," I said and invited him to have a look. He nodded this time. He smirked. He looked as if he'd seen a firefly, a spark floating across empty space.
"It is difficult," he said, staring at my work, "Doing what we do."
"Is it? And what's that?" I wanted to know. I think. Perhaps. Resenting the implication that we were, somehow, the same.
"We are detectives," he said. "We gather our string. We find an assortment of clues and subsequently trace a grim reality." His face was red. His eyes were down.
"Look, if you're still not satisfied. We. Your expectations. This isn't how I usually operate."
"She's one of the deceased, you know. The woman. Gone and unable to return. My partner and I found her last month. She was lying on the street below an apartment building on San Juan Boulevard. She lived there, we discerned. In the building. More particularly, in the apartment directly above. This was in her window. A computer was open on the ledge, and its monitor displayed a lit microphone. A clock was moving. Levels were jumping. These red and yellow lights. We weren't sure if we were allowed to turn it off."
"I fail to see how any of this—"
"We did, however. We switched it off. You would be surprised at how empty it sounded. How meaningless."
"Listen, if this is some kind of joke—"
"The case has been ruled on officially. It has been cleared. Deemed unworthy of further investigation. But I find myself here. I find myself needing confirmation. I find that I require visual, as well as auditory, proof."
"Are you saying you've found it? Because if you are. You have to admit. It sounds like I've done my job."
"I would like to propose a trade. In lieu of a fee."
"That's not how this works."
"I will allow you to keep the original recording," he said, "As well as any extant copies. In return, I would like this." The paper fluttered in his hand. "And also your previous attempt."
I thought for a moment. I wanted to reiterate. To provide a reminder. To be staunch and stubborn and adhere to procedure. I opened my mouth. Nothing came out. Or. Maybe. Something did. Only it couldn't be written. Was unable to be reproduced. Even by someone as skilled as myself.
"I am asking, I suppose, for an exception." That was him again. Looking desperate. And frightened. Pupils dilated and trimmed in green and suggesting, I think, an immediate need to leave.
I said I was willing to grant it. Reluctantly. And most likely out of fear. Out of disgust. Out of, perhaps, a desire to listen again. In context and with additional knowledge. I gave him the transcripts. I told him to frame them. To fold them. To carry them in a pocket and think about magic. The way reality collapses and arranges itself and provides a constant reminder. Of what, I couldn't say. I don't believe I tried to elaborate. I think I just wanted it all to end. Like the woman perhaps. Recording the finish and thinking about somebody else. Finding the scraps. Attempting to sort through the debris.
"Keep it safe," he said. "Keep it alive."
Sirens bled through the door when he left. They came from the street. They sounded like "h." Like "z." Like earaches and leaves, swirling in the middle of the night.
BIO: Brett Biebel currently lives and teaches in Raleigh, NC. His work has appeared in several journals, including The Great River Review, Line Zero, and Ascent Aspirations. When not teaching, he enjoys following Milwaukee Brewers baseball and listening to The Hold Steady.