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Excerpt

Universe of Two

Stephen Kiernan

August 3, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Stephen Kiernan's new novel, Universe of Two. Kiernan has won numerous awards, including the Brechner Center’s Freedom of Information Award, the Scripps Howard Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment, and the George Polk Award. He is the author of two previous novels, The Curiosity and The Hummingbird, and two nonfiction books. He lives in Vermont with his two sons.

I met Charlie Fish in Chicago in the fall of 1943. First I dismissed him, then I liked him, then I ruined him, then I saved him. In return he taught me what love was, lust, too, and above all what it is like to have a powerful conscience.

On first impression, Charlie was weak-chinned. To my girlfriends I might have called him a milquetoast, soft as an old banana. Which only goes to show how smart a 19-year-old girl is about anything. Now I know better. It turns out the greatest kinds of strength are hidden, and move slowly, and cannot be stopped by anything until they have changed the world.

Which he did twice.

I am not exaggerating, I was there on both occasions. One time I helped him, and the other time I hurt him. I hadn’t intended any harm, but there’s no denying that I used my influence to make him do terrible things. Irreversible things. He forgave me, that was in his nature, but I haven’t forgiven myself—even now, all these many years later. Some deeds are like tattoos, and the ink of regret is permanent.

How did it start? As innocently as the chiming of a bell when a shop door opens.

I was in the back office when I heard it ring, letting me know a customer had come in. At that moment I was frustrated, opening a shipment of sheet music for the high school chorus Christmas show. It was goose bumps chilly in the store, because we rarely had customers till afternoon and my mother wanted to scrimp on heat. But it wasn’t the cold that bothered me. It was the company that we used for sheet music supply. Their prices were the best, and their delivery the quickest. For some reason, though, they triple-sealed their packages, using that thick brown packing tape with the bad glue smell, so that it was all but impossible to get them open. Like breaking into Fort Knox, just to get the four-part harmony pages for “Jingle Bells.” Mr. Kulak, the high school principal and choir director, would be in to pick up the sheet music during his short lunch break. It was eleven thirty and I was nowhere near getting that package open.

I would have kissed a hundred boys in uniform, just to give them something about home to dream on while they went and did the world’s worst job.

“Anyone here?” the customer called.

“Be right out,” I hollered, which my mother would have said was not satisfactory customer service, but then again, she was never the one who had to deal with that tape.

It was amazing that life during the war continued with that much normality. To me, Chicago seemed starstruck. Movie matinees every Saturday after we closed early, they swept me away. The follies coming through town. Boys home on leave who would squire me around, their best pal toting a friend of mine too. We’d go to a show with them in uniform and us in patched-up nylons, feeling grown up. In spite of whatever hijinks they might have been dreaming of, all those boys really hoped for was a decent goodnight kiss. Which I gave, easy as a penny. What did it cost us, anyhow, to allow them that? With what they were going to be facing? Some of my friends wouldn’t smooch a soldier on the first date, in case he got the wrong idea, or they got a reputation for being fast. But I would have kissed a hundred boys in uniform, just to give them something about home to dream on while they went and did the world’s worst job.

Still, there were plenty of days that the world felt upside down. So many boys were gone in the service. My brother, Frank, the born natural at fixing cars? He’d enlisted at 19. Now he was stationed in England, working in a motor pool. Who knew when we’d see him again?

Far worse, we all knew families who had received the horrible telegram. Some mothers would never be the same, like Mrs. Winchester, the best soprano in our church’s choir until her Michael came home in a coffin and she didn’t sing anymore. Some fathers became bitter and silent, like Mr. Winchester, who perched on his front stoop and glared at people like he was daring them to start something.

Sorrow was in the air. Sometimes it seemed like half the people in that city were walking around with broken hearts of one kind or another.

So maybe a package I couldn’t unwrap was a small complaint, maybe I was self-absorbed and unaware. But what did I know? My life was so small then. I had no idea.

I’d tried peeling that tape off with my hands, only tore off an inch or so, and it made my fingers hurt. I found the big scissors, but they barely managed to snip off the extra strip on one corner. Still, I was determined.

“Anyone here?” the customer called.

“Be right ooouut,” I sang back, not much concealing my annoyance. Then the big scissors slipped, and though I pulled back quickly, the point of one arm jabbed me in the forefinger.

“Damn,” I grunted, though louder than I should have.

“Is everything all right?” the customer asked. “Is there some kind of trouble?”

“No trouble,” I sang out, before jamming my finger in my mouth, sucking the metallic taste of blood. “Be right there, I completely promise.”

Cursing in front of a customer? My mother would have wrung my neck. But she was off at her Monday war wives’ luncheon, not due back till one. I straightened my skirt and stopped before the little mirror to make sure I was presentable. A lock of my hair had come out from its comb, dangling in front of my face. I was in the middle of arranging it back into place when I heard the chord.

In the olden days, they used to have trumpets come out and play a fanfare before the king spoke, to shut everyone up I suppose. And plenty of paintings of angels have cherubs making music in the background whenever something big is happening.

This chord? It was a hallelujah. A call from the heavens. Or at least from a guy who knew what an organ could do. Because I scurried out of the office and there he sat at the Hammond spinet model, our entry-level instrument. He didn’t choose the church model, with its classy cabinet and thirty-two-note bass pedals, and Dubie’s Music did not carry the concert model because it was too glamorous and expensive to sell in Hyde Park.

What I saw? A fellow, skinny as a bread stick, wearing oversized pants and perched on the spinet’s throne with his eyes closed. He had his left hand on the low manual, right hand on the high manual, left foot on the bass note, right foot on the volume pedal, announcing for all the world every bit of the meaning and grandeur of a G-major chord, fully voiced, with all the trumpet stops open.

I know which key it was because I have perfect pitch. It’s not a talent, I was born that way. Maybe this is an advantage when sizing a customer up by what chord he plays first, but I promise, it is an affliction at the Christmas show when they sing “may your days be merry . . . and bright,” and on that high note all the sopranos go flat. “Well, well,” the skinny guy said, opening his eyes as he switched off the organ. He turned to me with a grin like a ten-year-old who’d just unwrapped his Christmas present. “Not bad.”

“Sorry I made you wait—”

But he was already off the bench and holding his hands toward the organ. “Would you play for me, miss? Please?”

I hung back by the door. Most customers would have said miss, or please, but not both. Also guys didn’t usually buy organs. They mostly brought a gal, let her choose, then dickered over the price. “Sounds like you can play it just fine yourself, mister.”

“Not a lick,” he said. “Only G major.” He gestured again, like an usher showing me to my seat. “Please?”

“Sure,” I cooed, sashaying across the sales floor. “This is the Hammond spinet, built right here in Chicago. Two manuals of forty-four keys, plus a full octave of bass pedals, the largest-selling organ in the world.”

He made a face. “Why would anyone want to be the largest-selling anything?”

“Honestly?”

“Wouldn’t you rather be the best-sounding instead?”

I sized him up. A little nervous, he had black marks on his fingertips, like he held a pencil all day. Not an indicator of musical passion, I’d say. Back then, I was constantly assessing people, measuring them. The fact that I always found myself superior had not yet dawned on me. “The sales are a sign of sound quality, sir. Of the public’s appreciation.”

“I see. But if you would please play—”

“Of course.” I slipped out of my shoes, so as not to scuff the bass pedals. “There are percussion and vibrato controls, plus drawbars for each manual, so you can customize your tone.”

“Thank you, but I only want to hear it.”

“Coming right up.” He was an odd one, all right, but sales were slow and I wasn’t going anywhere. I switched the instrument on again—which meant I had to stall while it warmed up. That little delay is one of the pleasures of the organ, how it reminds you that it is a machine, air filling the bellows, organizing itself for you. “Hammond uses ninety-one tone wheels, sir, machined to a mere one-thousandth of an inch. The transformers are sealed in wax, so the organ stays in tune regardless of changes in humidity.”

He nodded, too polite to expressly tell me to shut up, but if you’re paying attention, customers give plenty of signals when they want less talk, more music.

By then the spinet model was ready anyhow. I adjusted this and that drawbar, eased back the volume pedal, and sat up straight— posture always the last thing to check before playing—then trotted into my usual demonstration repertoire: “Isn’t This a Lovely Day,” “Monkey on a String,” “Cheek to Cheek.” He stood close by, watching my fingers move, maybe my feet on the pedals, nodding a little with the beat.

“No no,” he said after I stopped. “I mean, very nice. But do you have something slower, please? Maybe more sonorous?”

Sonorous. I didn’t know what the word meant, but I was certainly not going to say so. Maybe I had a sale on the hook, and here it was only Monday.

Business wasn’t great, to be honest. As a hobby, my father belonged to the Chicago Amateur Radio Operators Club. Most guys were interested in broadcasting, or finding other radio buffs hundreds of miles away, but Daddy’s pleasure came from repairing the club members’ radios—tinkering and soldering in our basement. The armed forces decided that his skills could be put to better use. He’d left early that year to serve in a communications center near San Diego.

So, with my mother at the helm of the cash register, I went to work at my father’s store in Hyde Park: Dubie’s Music, selling accordions, pianos, and organs for the few buyers who remained in that corner of sweet home Chicago.

Of course that put all my hopes on hold. I’d been accepted to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, a premiere organ school with two dozen instruments to learn on. Which was thin ice all around: My family had no money for college, if anyone had gone it would have been my brother as a future breadwinner, and deep down I doubted I was good enough to play at that level. I might dream about a scholarship, or a loan of some kind, but only after the war was over. Meanwhile, any skinny guy who played a decent G chord was definitely worth my time.

“Happy to,” I said. “Sonorous it is.” I pulled out some sheet music, flipped through, and saw Chopin’s Nocturne no. 2. Now that’s a sentimental old sop, I know, and I’m no great fan of the key of E-flat major. But the composition has lots of room, air all through the melody, then busy little bursts before everything spreads out again. I started at a nice, brisk pace.

“See how responsive the spinet model is, sir?” I kept playing while I talked. “All the sustain you want for long notes, all the precision for the trills.”

Then we were both quiet. It had been a while since I’d played that piece, so I was busy reading the pages. It actually was a pretty enough song after all. I struck the last notes, a pair of E-flats three octaves apart, and sat back with a sigh.

Skinny guy didn’t say a word. He just pulled out a handkerchief, reaching past me a little too close for a stranger, until I realized he was wiping a bit of blood off the keys, from my finger that had been poked by the scissors. He stepped back, folding the handkerchief into a neat square before tucking it away in his pocket without a word.

I closed the sheet music. “How’s that for sonorous? Are you falling in love?” That was as flirty as I knew how to be.

“It’s all right,” he announced. “I was curious about what a non-cathedral organ would sound like. What you have here is a well-made calliope.”

“A calliope? Does this place look like a circus?”

“In Atlantic City, for example,” skinny guy continued, “there is an organ with seven manuals, one thousand two hundred and thirty-five stops, and thirty-three thousand, one hundred and twelve pipes. It took eight years to build, ending in 1932.” He looked smug as a dog with a fresh bone.

“I bet it sounds horrible, something that giant and noisy. I bet it’s deafening.”

“It is a bit muddy,” he admitted, “or so I’ve been told.”

“Oh, so you’ve never heard it for yourself. What makes you so all-fired opinionated about organs, anyhow?”

“Until recently I was a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Which has a lovely, two-manual pipe organ.”

Well, la-di-da, I thought, easing down from the bench, sliding my shoes back on. “For a nonpiped instrument, mister, this one here is a beauty. Perfect for churches, concert halls, recording studios, and the finest homes. There’s nothing better for sale anywhere.”

“Oh, I didn’t come in to buy anything.” He smiled. “I wanted to listen.”

I put my hands on my hips. “Well, then you’re wasting my time.” His face made a surprised expression, eyes wide and the eyebrows way up. “I suppose I am,” he said. “I’m sorry. How might I make it up to you?”

That was how he wound up in the back room with me. He took the scissors from the unopened box and put them aside gently, as if they were a sleeping cat. We made conversation. Turning eighteen in three months, he was sure to be drafted.

“You aren’t going to enlist?” I asked him. Lots of fellas made a big boast about doing such a thing. That was my kind of guy.

“Look at me,” he said, holding his bony arms wide. “Not exactly a born warrior. The only way I’d survive beyond an hour is if I stood sideways, and made too thin a target for a rifleman to hit.”

But, he said, he was a bit of a math whiz. His uncle, a professor at the university, had brought him into a team of young guys doing calculations for the government.

“They try to make it sound manly, saying it’s classified and so on,” skinny guy continued, all the while using his fingernails to pick one corner of the thick brown tape upward. “But really it’s plain mathematics all day.”

I’d been no slouch at math myself, in high school, which I had only graduated from that June, and probably would have won the math award if I hadn’t been a girl. But it was not like today, with calculators and computers and so on. We had slide rules, and longform division. Not to mention that any student skilled at math, boy or girl, gets the award now. Well, some of the time.

“Not too boring,” he continued. “And miles better than getting killed. Or worse, having to kill someone else.”

Which gave me something new to think on. I’d worried plenty about Frank and the other neighborhood boys getting killed. But before then, I hadn’t spent ten seconds considering what it would be like for them to kill someone.

“How old are you?” he asked, direct as you please with such a personal question.

I never gave anyone that information in those days, yet I answered this boy right out: “Nineteen.”

“Oh,” he said, registering that I was older.

“Since last month. What’s all this math for, anyhow?” I’d taken a seat on the desk, legs crossed ladylike and acting casual, like guys came to help in the back room every day, yawn. My mother would have had kittens, right there on the office floor.

“No one knows,” he said, making tiny progress in getting a little flap of tape loose. He pinched it between his thumb and forefinger. “It must be important, though, because the assignments come from way up in the military.”

I straightened my sweater. I’d heard plenty such talk before. “You don’t say.”

Meanwhile he tightened his grip and pulled straight up. All three layers of tape came away in one fat strip, making a ripping sound as the box popped open.

“There you go,” he said, the coil of tape dangling from his hand like a just-killed snake. He turned to drop it in the wastebasket, then held that skinny but surprisingly strong hand out to me. “Charlie Fish.”

“Brenda Dubie,” I said, shaking hands. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too, Brenda.”

But neither of us let go, for a second there, neither one. Talk about a chord playing.

The little bell on our front door jingled again. I whirled to see Mr. Kulak striding into the store, taking off his hat. I rushed forward to meet him, not doing anything wrong, but feeling anyhow like I’d just been caught red-handed.

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Excerpted from Universe of Two by Stephen Kiernan. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, William Morrow. 




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