It is third day of Interim.
A rather long Interim, for us.
All day we wonder: When will Mr. U. return? To Podium? Are the Untermeyers (Mr. U., Mrs. U., adult son Mike) pleased? If so, why? If not, why not? When next will we be asked to Speak? Of what, in what flavor?
We wonder avidly. Though not aloud. For there may be Penalty. One may be unPinioned before the eyes of the upset others and brought to a rather Penalty Area. (Here at the Untermeyers’, a shed in the yard.) In Penalty, one sits in the dark among shovels. One may talk. But cannot Speak. How could one? To enjoy the particular exhilaration of Speaking, one must be Pinioned. To the Speaking Wall.
Otherwise, one speaks like this.
As I am speaking to you now.
Plain, uninspired, nothing of beauty about it.
Hearing Mr. U. coming down the hall, we wonder: Might tonight be Company?
But no. Soon, we find, it is mere Rehearsal. Mr. U.’s intention: to jam.
“Ted, where are you, what are you doing?” Mrs. U. inquires in the angry voice from elsewhere in the house.
“In the Listening Room,” he says. “Jamming.”
“Oh, for Lord’s sake,” she says.
It is a special feeling one gets when Mr. U. has sent your Pulse but it has not fully arrived. Like a pre-dreaming or déjà vu is how Craig and Lauren and I have described it on those rare occasions when, risking Penalty, we have spoken among ourselves. Once the Pulse is fully upon you, here will come your words, not intended by, but nevertheless flowing through, you, built, as it were, upon the foundation that is you, supercharged by the Pulse, molded to the chosen Topic, such that, if Mr. U. has dialed in, say, Nautical, whoever he has chosen to go first will suddenly begin Speaking of things Nautical in his or her own flavor, but far more compellingly than he or she could if unPinioned. Mr. U., jamming, may choose to have all of us Speak of Nautical simultaneously; in a whisper or quite loud; may Pan right to left (from Craig to Lauren to me, per our current Arrangement), each of us, in turn, putting his or her own spin on Nautical.
Tonight I feel the pre-dreaming/déjà vu feeling and then, Across the slick vast field of the main deck aslant with the latest breaker, I find myself calling out, amid a positive Babel of shouted voices in manifold accents and dialects, hoary hands grip and release rainslick masts as the rain pounds crosswise the darkwood deck veined by ancient ropes greenish with mold beneath the booted feet racing to address a faltering knot or stay as each lad wonders will he live out the storm or come to claustrophobic choking end sinking deep to expire in the watery Jones locker with the many-tentacled abyss creatures of the—
Even as I am Speaking, I am aware of looks of pity, of commiseration, from Craig and Lauren, looks that seem to say: Although we are not exactly following you, good job, Jeremy, well Spoken, you are clearly doing your best to Speak of Nautical, and if the result is somewhat vague and hard to parse, well, that is the fault of Mr. U., who apparently has set your Prolixity too high.
But they dare not judge me too harshly.
For soon their Pulses too will come.
On Break we stay Pinioned, resting. Our current Pose: arms and legs thrown out wide, in the shape of the letter X, each of us askew at a slightly different angle.
Like stars, or a trio of folks falling from a great height.
Mr. U. comes back in with a beer and some chips.
“I think,” he says, “City. A cityscape. What do you think?”
The Penalty for speaking being perpetually in effect, we merely nod, indicating: Sure, yes, City sounds good.
The Control Board allows Mr. U. to produce many shadings of Speech. It not just City of which I (again first, I happily note) now begin Speaking; it is City, plus Sad, plus Summer; a dominant coloration of green-blue; City arranged N/S along a wide river. I am made to Speak in short, brisk sentences. Lauren, following me, Speaks, also, of a N/S-trending, river-spanning City, but, plus: Hunger, Raining, Exaltation, her whole Pass consisting of one long sentence. Craig is: City arranged E/W, white, Winter, no river, overrun by cats, alternating short and long sentences, and toward the end of his Pass, he begins to rhyme, or trying to rhyme, and is also Speaking, or attempting to Speak—Mr. U. is attempting to get him to Speak—in iambic pentameter (!).
For Finale, all three of us Speak of our Cities at once, as Mr. U. dials in Crescendo, such that afterward all three of our throats really hurt, so energetically does Mr. U. have us Speaking there at the end.
Mr. U. has been Recording. He plays us a snippet. Is pleased. So, we are pleased. Who would not be pleased? Well, Mrs. U. He calls her in, plays her the snippet.
“That is just some random noise, Ted,” she says, and walks out.
We watch Mr. U. closely. Is he peeved? Seems to be. Yet still believes in us. We can tell by his smile, which says: Has she ever liked a piece of ours yet?
And we smile back: Not yet.
Mr. U. climbs the stepladder to pop into each of our mouths a lozenge. Jean, the maid, comes in with three water sponges on sticks, with which she moistens our lips, and then it is Dinner, and she Feeds us by attaching our Personal Feed Tubes to the tri-headed Master Feed Tube coming out of her large jar of Dining Mélange.
Then steps aside to read her book as we Dine.
Though sore-throated, we have elation: Interim is over.
Again we feel useful, creative, part of a team.
Late in the night the door creaks. Mrs. U. enters in nightwear. She steps directly to me, as always.
“Jeremy,” she whispers. “Are you awake? I don’t mean to bother. But.”
“I’m awake,” I whisper.
She wheels over Podium slowly, so as to maintain quiet, sets it just so. She slides a mic on a stand to my lips and dons headphones so as not to disturb the others or alert Mr. U. Sitting on the floor before me, she reaches behind and above herself to hit, on the Control Board, Go.
Tonight it is Rural, plus Ancient; overtones of Escape.
I begin Speaking (or, rather, per her Settings, Whispering, into the mic): of her Beauty, and we meet beside a placid Italian lake; in simple, objective sentences, for we are farmers; of the distant hills into which one day, I promise her, we will disappear; more of her Beauty; with quite high Specificity, and I find that, as I describe her Beauty (her hips, her breasts, the way her hair falls across her shoulders in the early morning light, the way it makes me feel to glimpse her across the community table on feast days) I am becoming aroused, as is she, but also, if I may say it this way, am becoming, as well, in love with her, as, I believe, she is becoming in love with me, even though her family, her farming family, does not wish it, because she is betrothed to a cocksure troll of a man, son of the richest family in town, and as we pass hand in hand through a flock of sheep belonging to his family, which also owns the distant mill, she leans into me, indicating (I am Whispering all of this into the mic): I do not want him or his sheep, only you.
One new Feature tonight: a storm approaches. Soon we are drenched and I take off my outer garment and drape it across her slender shoulders. The storm is hers; it is in her Settings, part of Rural. But the garment-draping is mine; I supply that and can see that it pleases her, real her, sitting cross-legged there before me.
Then, beneath a waterfall, or actually just to one side of it, we make love, and I describe it well, and though I am Pinioned and therefore may not reach myself, Mrs. U. is not Pinioned, and may, and does, reach herself.
As is often the case, I wonder whether it might not occur to Mrs. U., once she has been in that way unburdened, to stand up, step over, unburden me.
But it does not. It does not seem to occur to her. It never does. Never has yet.
Which is, I always feel, once my arousal has receded, probably for the best.
She merely rises to her feet abruptly, takes off the headphones, and, as if regretful, sharply wheels Control Podium back to where it was, restores the Dials to where they were, steps over to Lauren, then Craig, shining cellphone dimly upon them to see if they were awake during what just transpired. As usual, she concludes they were not. Sometimes, they really were not. (Paradoxically, though Pinioned and motionless all day, we are always exhausted at night.) On occasions when they have, in fact, been awake, as she approached with cellphone, they have quickly pretended to be asleep, not wanting her to feel in the least troubled.
All these four years she has never once gone to sit before Craig. Only me. And lately has begun sitting before me more often, and longer, to the extent that sometimes the dim harbinger of dawn, a sliver of yellow light that creeps in from what we believe was formerly a window but is now boarded up but not all that well, will fall across her lap, and she will leap to her feet, mumbling, for example, “What the hell, morning already?”
Copyright © 2022 by George Saunders. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.