Sara wakes after midnight. The moon is bright, the room lit in indigo and bone. The lacy curtains billow. On the breeze, the scent of salt, the waves’ ceaseless crash. Sara’s shoulders are sore to the touch. She smells of lotion. She lights a cigarette and, with lips pressed to the window screen, blows a smoky plume. Her parents had fought earlier—too much bourbon and too many cigarettes. Now another sound, a rhythm like the surf. Soft moans. Sara rises from her bed and lays a hand on the thin wall.
A conch shell rests atop the dresser. Sara lifts the shell from its wooden stand. The shell’s shape reminds her of her brother’s old football. She runs a finger along the bony ridges, wipes dust from the opening’s shellac-glistening tongue. Using two hands, she raises the shell to her ear.
Of course Sara does not hear the ocean. The low-frequency hiss is born from the fact that the shell acts as a closed-pipe resonator. Its wave-mimicking song is white noise, the blank slate upon which all recognizable sounds are etched. In a bit of Mobius logic, its gentle purr is also the washed-out resultant of all sounds, a tone which gravitates more than any other toward purity and which also contains almost every audible frequency.
Hot the next day, the air thick with haze and a fishy odor. Sara lies in the umbrella’s shade but soon grows restless. She is annoyed by the stink. Annoyed by the radio station the boys beside them play. She tries to focus on the sounds of waves and gulls, on the call of children’s voices. From behind her sunglasses, she considers her parents. There are all coping with memories, with silences and empty spaces. She goes for a walk. The seagulls hover, the shoreline thick with their calls and the too-close beating of their wings. There are no swimmers in the water, the surf overtaken by wave-nudged jellyfish, dozens, maybe hundreds of them. In the wet sand, a boy pokes one with a stick. The texture and thoughtless cruelty of the scene make Sara ill.
She lies back on her towel. Sand bristles the nook of her upper thigh. She pulls the elastic aside and brushes out the granules. Turning, she catches the boys with the horrible music looking her way. The boys smirk. One leans over and whispers into a friend’s ear. Sara rises and shakes out her towel, ensuring the boys are hit in the fallout. She repositions the towel on the other side of her parents and lets the sun beat upon her face.
Friction is the rub of this world. Friction wears on a body from without and within. The smoothest surfaces are rough at the microscopic level, imperfect despite their machined polish. Mu is the measure of the coefficient of friction. The higher the mu, the greater the frictional force. Mu is equal to the force applied divided by the force perpendicular. Both forces are measured in Newtons, which, upon calculation, cancel, leaving mu as that rare phenomenon of physics, a number unclaimed by a unit’s measure.
Last year, Sara’s science teacher introduced her class to mu in a lab involving sliding blocks. Calculating the frictional coefficient was simple enough, but despite her teacher’s words and diagrams, Sara struggled with the notion of mu. She found its lack of a proper unit vexing, the unshackled numbers threatening to flutter off like a summer butterfly, but today, on the sun-baked beach, she feels a previously unappreciated force all around her—in her mother’s crinkling page turns, in the boys’ music and banter, in the breeze that stinks of rot and death. Here, perhaps, lies the crux of her consciousness, the most telling confirmation she exists registered in the rub between herself and the world.
That night, they go to the boardwalk funhouse. There is always a hitch at times like these, the memory of her brother, dead these eight months. A car accident, a night of bad decisions. Gone. The funhouse would be his kind of thing. Spooky, silly, stupid. Sara is not the type to scream—yet she does, her hands clutching her father’s arm when a knife-wielding woman bursts through a curtain.
They enter a room of mirrors. A dozen reflections surround her, fragmented views, distortions fat and thin. Sara grows disoriented. She reaches for her father, but she is fooled, her hand grasping air. “Daddy?” she calls.
In physics, /images are divided into the real and the virtual. A real image’s rays converge at a focal point, which in turn can be observed on a screen or sheet of paper. A virtual image does not exist in these terms; rather, it is a trick of the eye and the properties of light, the plaything of magicians and the subterfuge-filled origin of the phrase “done with mirrors.”
Upon exiting the funhouse, Sara thinks again of her brother. Recently she’s been distressed by his fading image, another abandonment, leaving her nothing more than memories and photographs, /images both real and not.
Sara sits atop the sloping shoreline. The late-day sun strikes her back, her shadow stabbing far into the foaming surf. Nearby, a little boy dips a bucket into the lapping waves and empties the water over his sister’s feet. A bigger wave rolls in. The boy tumbles but the girl pulls him from the water. The children yell and laugh. Seagulls hover on the breeze. The lifeguards are gone, and most of the day’s crowd has left. The light is warm and yellow and rich.
A complex wave is formed by two frequencies separated by more than 7Hz. The world is awash in dissonance, two waves that mesh in an unpleasing manner. But if the resultant sound is pleasant, consonance is achieved and a chord is formed. Cultural and experiential influences surely affect the judgment of consonance and dissonance. The symphonies of John Cage and other avant-garde composers raise the question of whether our values of consonance can be altered by experience. Traditional music of the Far East, with its pentatonic scales and lack of quantitative rhythms, often registers as odd, even unpleasant, to the Western ear. Thus, unlike most of the hard-set rules of physics, the values of consonance and dissonance appear to be flexible and open to interpretation.
Sara listens to the children. What a deceptively simple magic, their voices able take the surf’s crumble, the caw of gulls, and elevate them into chords. Sara closes her eyes. She hears her brother’s voice and hers, arguing, laughing, teasing. In this echo, her brother lives. She will keep this chord in her heart.
Curtis Smith’s stories and essays have appeared in over seventy literary journals and have been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. Press 53 published two recent story collections Bad Monkey and The Species Crown. Casperian Books published the novels Sound + Noise and Truth or Something Like It. Sunnyoutside Press recently released his latest book, Witness, an essay collection.
Read our feature of Curt (including the author’s own words about his work) here.