‘Soundtracker’ was shortlisted for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Writing the ad was a struggle. It wasn’t until I was sitting at the computer – the ‘creative services offered’ section of Craigslist open in front of me – that I realised I wasn’t totally clear myself on what I was offering. I fussed over the wording for almost an hour. Musical Orchestrator? Audio Companion? I finally settled on:
Soundtracker for hire. Multi-instrumentalist available to provide original musical accompaniment for special occasions or just hanging out at home. Make your wildest (musical) dreams come true. Competitive rates. Call anytime.
I hit ‘Submit,’ then curled up in bed and waited for my life to begin. Fifteen minutes later, my email chimed.
Walter asked that we meet at a coffee shop a few blocks from my apartment. I knew who he was before I even went inside. Through the window, I could see a lanky guy in his early thirties hunched over a table, scribbling in a spiral notebook. We shook hands, his warm and dry, mine a little damp.
‘So,’ I said, ‘let me tell you a little about the service I’m, uh, prepared to offer. No, wait. I’ll start again. Have you ever seen a movie? What I mean is, have you ever seen the movie Star Wars? Now, imagine how lifeless that film would be without John William’s stunning arrangements. Luke Skywalker’s transformation from–’
Walter held up his palm. ‘What I want, what I need, is for someone – you – to score my life for an undetermined amount of time. Can you do that?’ He stared at me until I nodded.
‘Good.’ Walter tore the page he’d been writing on out of his notebook and slid it across the table. ‘Here’s a partial list of music I like. For inspiration.’
‘Oh, well, in case it wasn’t clear from my ad, I’d mostly be performing my own music. I mean, I don’t have the rights to anyone else’s songs or anything, so if you want, like, Kanye or something, then—’
‘No one’s going to get litigious on you, Nathan. We’re just two friends enjoying some songs and each other’s company, right?’
I felt like I couldn’t stop blinking. ‘Right. You’re right.’ Walter had thick hair the colour of wet hay. His nose was sharp and a little bent.
‘We’ll start at 10 am tomorrow.’ He wrote his address on the corner of a fresh page, ripped it out and handed it to me.
‘We should probably discuss my fee,’ I said. ‘Because this is a pilot project, I’m offering you a reduced rate. It’ll be on an hourly basis.’ I hadn’t really thought about how the money would work. ‘Time-and-a-half on weekends?’
‘Neither of us have done this before, have we, Nathan?’ Both of us slowly shook our heads. Walter smiled without showing his teeth. ‘Besides, whatever, the money doesn’t matter.’
‘But won’t that screw you at tax time–’
‘Nathan. You will get paid.’
‘Oh. Okay, great.’ I wiped my hands on my jeans.
‘I’ll see you in the morning, then.’ Walter bent over his notebook and started writing, his hand cupped to block my view. I nodded and walked out to the street. The meeting took five minutes and I never even got coffee. On the way home, I stopped at the Starbucks where I used to work, but no one I knew was working and I was a dollar short.
That night I spent hours poring over Walter’s list: Lee Hazelwood, Kool Keith, Bauhaus, Grimes, Ennio Morricone, some disco and house music, piles of German stuff I’d never heard of, classical, Britpop, hardcore. It hadn’t occurred to me that my client might know more about music than me, and I was embarrassed to have to rip most of it off the internet. Walter couldn’t have been more than five or six years older than me, but I already felt like his dim nephew. I listened to track after track after track, until my headphones began to pinch.
The next morning, I packed my portable mixer, keyboard, battery pack, speakers, rhythm instruments, and accordion onto a handcart and pushed it fifteen blocks in the drizzle to the address Walter had given me. Goldenview Mansion. I found his name on the intercom menu and buzzed up. The door hummed and clicked open.
Walter wore the same clothes he’d worn the day before – cargo pants, black hoodie, white t-shirt – and ushered me in with the same wiry intensity.
The living room was a shrine to dead media – records, CDs, books, VHS tapes stacked everywhere – but otherwise nothing special. Ikea coffee table, saggy couch, Dali prints, a couple of lamps, one potted fern near the window. We sat down at a two-seat table in the kitchenette.
I spoke first: ‘So, how do you want to start this?’
Walter gestured towards the sink. ‘Dishes.’ A big, loose pile on the countertop.
‘Right, so what sort of mood are you looking for?’
‘You tell me.’
I got up and walked to the sink. There was a window above it that looked out over a dead box-garden on the roof of the next-door building. ‘Well, washing dishes is monotonous and you have a lot of them. The weather’s pretty crap today. Something mechanical, maybe a little melancholy?’
Walter shrugged. I dug out my mini keyboard sequencer and placed it on the table. Walter got up and went to the sink. He stared out the window.
I started with a motorik 4/4 beat—dum-dum-dum-tsh, dum-dum-dum-tsh—then played a minor harmonic scale and looped it over the top. Walter squirted dishsoap into the sink and turned on the tap. I added a sample of a woman singing ‘Some traditions cannot be overcome’ and slowed it down to a drawl. Walter dumped the plates in the sink and began wiping. I threw in a plaintive bird cry on the sixth beat. Walter did the bowls and cups. I pulled the snare back and pushed the hi-hat up. Walter scrubbed the cutlery, adding a metallic jangle. As he pulled the plug and shut off the tap, I killed the beat and the spoken sample, leaving only the scale and bird cry as an echo. As the drain slurped up the last of the water, I turned off the machine. Walter stood still, his back to me.
He turned. ‘That was perfect.’ He was smiling that same small, closed-mouth smile.
‘Wash the floors.’
‘Something a little heavier, maybe?’
Later that evening, on the way out the door, he pushed a wad of bills into my hand. I counted it in the elevator on the way down. A hundred and twenty dollars. The first gig I’d ever been paid for in cash instead of beer.
Tim had called a band meeting and suggested we all go for breakfast. When I showed up at the diner, Martin and Bread were already there, too. We ordered and made small talk over our eggs for a while. When I told them I was working on an accordion part for ‘All Our Parents’ Basements,’ the conversation died on the table. Tim ahemed and said, ‘Nate, we’re out of the band.’ Bread and Martin stared into their coffee cups. Tim said I could keep the Bureau of Oak moniker – I’d come up with it anyway – but that the three of them would be continuing under another name. The Wise Scythes. How idiotic. They wanted a more stripped-down garage sound, no need for electronics or strings or a gong.
‘But what about the accordion?’
They all looked somewhere else. I got up and left. Halfway down the block, I got a text from Tim reminding me I hadn’t paid for my breakfast. I went back in and dropped a pair of fives on top of my greasy plate.
‘I’ve got some errands to do.’
It was only day two. ‘I can come back tomorrow.’
Walter shook his head. ‘No. You’re coming with me.’
Half an hour later, we were on the sidewalk in front of Walter’s building. Walter carried nothing; I carried maracas and a tambourine in my hands and a pair of bongo drums on a strap around my neck. My miniature drum machine stretched the breast pocket of my shirt.
While we walked, I tapped the tambourine against my thigh and shooka-shooked the maracas. If Walter was aware of people staring, he didn’t show it. He just bobbed his head, a full stride in front of me down the sidewalk. His legs were a lot longer than mine and I had to hustle to keep up. I felt like a real asshole.
We stopped in front of the gas station convenience store on the corner. As Walter reached for the door handle, I let my arms fall loose to my sides. Walter wheeled around. ‘What are you doing?’
‘You’re going in, right? I can’t play in there.’
‘If you’re going to be my soundtracker, Nathan, then you have to soundtrack.’ Walter scowled. ‘Do your job.’
‘Okay, okay.’ I started it back up again, turned on the little beat maker to my approximation of tropicalismo. While Walter rooted around in the cooler, the young attendant gawked at me. Over the kid’s shoulder, I could see myself on the security monitor, and had to look away. Walter just nodded along.
I followed Walter down the street, to the waterfront, through the park, until we finally arrived at the big grocery store – The MegaSave. The automatic doors whispered open and pulled us in.
Walter traversed the aisles, loading the cart with cans and boxes and plastic packages. I was quickly realising how intuitive I had to be, creating sound to match Walter’s mood and gait, transitioning smoothly from one to the next. I tried to match the music to the product being selected – something upbeat and jingly for breakfast cereal, languid and soothing for soup. Some customers laughed or smiled; others seemed angry, like we’d upset their routines. Mostly, they just pretended not to see or hear us at all.
To be truthful, I was starting to get into it, being a spectacle. While we waited in line at the cashier, I straightened up to full height and threw down a little merengue. I looked around to see who was watching, and that’s when I saw Cara. She came up right behind me in line.
‘What’s going on, Nate?’ She was holding a box of those gluten-free crackers she likes and had her hair cut into bangs. ‘Is everything okay with you?’
‘Can’t really talk right now.’ I leaned in so Walter couldn’t hear. ‘I’m on the clock.’ I tapped the bongos louder and faster and swung my head.
Cara took a step back. ‘Do your parents know about this?’ Her brow was so furrowed, it looked like her eyebrows were trying to kiss each other. She reached out her hand and touched my elbow. ‘I heard about the band, you know.’ Past her, I could see a security guard moving towards us.
I looked back as Walter accepted his change from the cashier and began to head for the exit. I pulled my arm away and started to follow, speaking up over my own noise: ‘This isn’t busking, if that’s what you think.’ Before the automatic doors whooshed closed behind me, I heard Cara call my name and say else something I couldn’t hear. I didn’t let myself go back to check.
Outside, Walter asked who the girl was.
‘No one special.’
Cara had liked that I was in a band. We’d met at Bureau of Oak’s first show, where she stood at the edge of the low stage through our whole set. While the next band was doing their soundcheck, she asked if she could buy me a drink. On our tour of the Pacific Northwest, she called me every day and would talk in a low purr about what she was doing with her free hand.
When we were serious, she said, ‘You should probably get a job. That student loan’s not going to pay itself.’
When things got bad, she said, ‘You’re not a professional musician, Nathan. You don’t even know how to play the guitar.’
‘Bring your violin,’ Walter said over the phone. ‘We’re going to visit my niece.’ I suggested the accordion, but he nixed it and hung up. It was day five.
He picked me up in a cab and got me to sit up front with the driver, while he stared out the window. We pulled up in front of a nondescript bungalow in the suburbs, its yard dotted with mud-spattered summer toys. Walter knocked and an angular woman came to the door. His sister. ‘What the fuck, Walt?’ she hissed. She glared at me over his shoulder.
‘Good to see you also, Judy. This is my associate, Nathan.’ He nodded to me. ‘Is Kaylie home?’
‘You can’t just disappear and reappear whenever. What even goes on in your head, Walt? Do you have any fucking idea?’
‘Yes, I’m sure everyone is real torn up. So, Kaylie?’ The two of them stared at each other in silence for almost a full minute.
Finally, the sister shook her head and said, ‘That’s so fucking typical.’ She stomped into the house. ‘Kaylie! You have visitors.’ We followed her inside.
Kaylie was a quick and loud eight-year-old, lean like her mother and uncle, with so many plastic barrettes clipped into her hair that they clicked when she moved. Walter became a different person around her, asking goofy questions and intentionally forgetting the names of things. She brought out a stack of paintings on that cheap paper that comes in giant pads and walked Walter through the intricacies of each. He nodded thoughtfully and traced his fingers over the different arcs and splats of colour. I was trying to decipher the tone of the scene, so I knew what to play, but Walter gave me a subtle shake of his head, his eyes flicking to Judy, who leaned into the doorway and fumed. After a while, he told Kaylie he needed to talk to her mom and that maybe the two of us could discuss music, while they went to the other room. He gave me a brief nod, stood up, and pulled Judy through a doorway, closing the door behind him.
Kaylie played the oboe at school. When I showed her my violin, she told me to play ‘Devil Went Down to Georgia.’
‘I don’t know how to play that one,’ I said. ‘Besides, Kiddo, I think that’s for fiddle.’
Kaylie crossed her arms. ‘They’re the same instrument, Dummo.’
Instead, I played her the string part of Britney Spears’s ‘Toxic’ and then – as Walter and Judy’s muffled voices rose in the other room – bludgeoned my way through ‘Flight of the Bumblebee.’ I realised that I didn’t really have any full songs, merely little fragments to support what other people were playing, but I could hear Judy sobbing in the other room and played anything I could, as loud as possible.
Kaylie tilted her little blonde head. ‘Are you very good? I think maybe you’re not very good.’
Judy and Walter came through the doorway. Both wrung their hands – palms roving over knuckles, fingers interlacing – and Judy’s cheeks were wet with tears. ‘Well, I guess that’s it then.’ She shot me a look I couldn’t fathom. Walter gave Kaylie a long hug and then the two of us were in a cab, heading home. I sat in the front seat and made small talk with the driver, while Walter sat behind, his hands still climbing over each other.
As I was getting out, he said, ‘I tried, Nathan. You saw that I tried, right?’
‘You did,’ I said.
‘I wish you’d been in there.’ Walter reached forward and squeezed my shoulder. ‘The acoustics were incredible.’
We continued. Walter would putter around the apartment or eat or go to the store and I would accompany him. I studied the compositions of Phillip Glass. He shifted the furniture around for better framing. I mastered the bass synth line from ‘Blue Monday’ and put it to good use. I’d come to understand that, in the same way Walter’s actions dictated how I played, I could change his movements with my music, make him bounce or sweep or plod. We’d reached music-motion symbiosis. Each reacted to the other.
During one epic session, I played for nearly six hours straight while Walter pulled box after box from his closet and loaded their contents into heavy-duty garbage bags. I recorded him hauling the bags down the stairs, across the alley and into the yard of the boarded-up house you could see from his window, and jumbled the sounds together into a kind of audio collage. As he dumped report cards, photographs, and a lone basketball trophy into the burning barrel there, I looped back the crackle of the flames and the hissing of wet leaves. By the hypnotised look in his eyes, I could tell I fucking nailed it.
As often as not, though, we would just sit and talk about music or watch movies. While we were watching The Graduate, he paused the video as Dustin Hoffman languished in the pool to ‘The Sounds of Silence’ and said, ‘This is exactly what I’ve been talking about.’ We both nodded at the truth of it.
The days got longer. Sometimes I went home, sometimes I slept on his couch. Walter had a key cut for me. At some point everyday, he would give me a handful of cash, which I’d shove in my wallet without counting until later. Up to a thousand dollars a week.
If Walter had a job or any other relationships or connections – other than his sister and niece – then I didn’t know who they were. If I had any friends or family who gave a shit, then I didn’t know who they were either. I didn’t need Tim or Marcus or Bread. I didn’t want to be in their stupid band anyway. I didn’t need my parents and their suggestions that it was time to start taking life seriously or that I enroll in an accounting class like my brother. I didn’t need Cara. They could all go fuck themselves. I had a new gig that was better than anything they could offer. I had someone who shared my interests.
Walter gave me an afternoon off, but told me to come back in the evening. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I just went home and worked on my hip hop beats for a while, then had a nap.
When I returned later, Walter was fidgety and bouncier than usual. He excused himself to the bedroom to make a phone call. A few minutes later, he came out into the kitchenette and pulled a bottle of something amber-coloured from the cupboard. He poured two shots and slid one across the table. ‘I’ve got someone coming over,’ he said. ‘A friend.’ Friend sounded like it had quotation marks around it.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Okay, cool. Do you want me to take off then?’
‘No,’ he said quickly. ‘You need to be here.’ He reached for the bottle again and topped up our glasses.
The intercom buzzed. Soon, a young woman with glasses and mousy-brown hair stood in the apartment.
‘Nathan, this is Chantelle. Chantelle, Nathan.’’
She smiled and touched my arm. ‘Walter’s told me about you.’ Chantelle smelled like apple pie spice and sweat.
‘Uh, thanks? Do you have a request?’
Walter and Chantelle spoke simultaneously – ‘Magnetic Fields’ – and gave each other secret smiles. I pushed away my instruments and cued the music on my computer, while Walter poured another round. We talked and drank. Whenever Walter got up, Chantelle’s eyes would track him around the room, and her smile would come and go.
A short while later, I found myself in a buoyant haze. I shimmied in the kitchenette – our glasses in a sloppy line in front of me on the counter – and sang. Sang! The band never wanted me to sing, not even back-up. Chantelle hugged my waist and pointed to my pile of equipment in the corner. ‘Where’s your guitar? I wanna hear some guitar.’
Walter spun around and shouted, ‘Guitars are for wankers,’ and maybe it was the euphoria of sad music played loudly or maybe it was the liquor, but I felt like my heart was glowing out of my chest. Laughing, I twirled Chantelle, then broke away and jogged off down the hall for a piss.
When I returned from the bathroom, Walter and Chantelle were on the couch, her sweater on the floor and her hand slipped down the waist of Walter’s pants. He was watching me intently.
‘Oh, I…ah. Well, shit.’ I stumbled into my shoes and out the door. They called after me, but I didn’t hear what.
I waited for the elevator, but by the time it dinged open, I found myself back down the hallway, standing outside Walter’s door, my knuckles poised an inch from the wood. Up close, I could still hear the music inside. I must have stood there for a couple of minutes – swaying lightly side-to-side – when Chantelle appeared in the doorway, wearing a pair of men’s boxer shorts and nothing else.
‘He said you’d be back.’ She had a tattoo of a cartoon snail on one breast, its eye stalks crossed and tongue lolling out. ‘Walter says this scene is important.’ She took my hand and led me in.
While Chantelle disappeared into the bedroom, I turned off the music on my laptop and picked up the keyboard. I stepped down the hallway after her. Walter stood naked near the bed, one hand working his cock. When he saw me, he smiled wide enough to show his teeth. He hooked one long finger into Chantelle’s boxers and pulled them down over her thighs.
I pushed some clothes off a chair in the corner and sat. Walter ran his thin hand down Chantelle’s back and wedged it into the cleft of her ass. I programmed in the beats I’d been working on earlier – boom-boom-bu-dat-tss-tss – and slowed them to a trickle. Walter sat on the bed and took one of Chantelle’s nipples into his mouth. I added some dub effects and strings. Chantelle knelt down between his legs. I looped in a Nina Simone sample. Chantelle gently pushed Walter on to the bed and climbed on top of him. I undid my pants and slid my hand inside. Both of them watched me.
The three of us stood. Walter and Chantelle moved to either side of me, tugged off my hoodie and t-shirt, lowered my jeans and underwear in one piece. ‘Wait,’ I said, turned up the volume on the keyboard and hit repeat.
Walter and Chantelle lay back on the bed. I fell into the empty space between them and let myself be enveloped in pale skin and musky smells and guiding hands and hair and mouths and hot breath on my neck.
In the morning, Chantelle was gone and Walter stood in the kitchen in a pair of saggy briefs. We sat at the table in front of cups of instant coffee.
‘You can take today off, if you want,’ he said. ‘Yesterday was a long day.’
I nodded. ‘Sure.’ I didn’t know what to say about what had transpired. My mouth felt thick.
‘We should definitely meet tomorrow, though. I have some ideas for the death scene.’
‘Okay, right. I can come – wait, what? What death scene?’
Walter took a sip, then stared across the cup.
Back at home, I tried to psych myself up to call Tim and the boys about getting the band back together. I put on Bureau of Oak’s self-titled cassette and cranked it. After a few songs, I turned it down. Before the first side even ended, I shut it off. Maybe it was because I’d advanced so far since then, or maybe I’d just soured on the whole thing. Either way, the music was terrible; too much sound, a Brian-Wilson-meets-My Bloody-Valentine dense wall of shit. Rank-fucking-amateur, at best.
Without calling first, I went back to Walter’s and let myself in. I startled him as he sat on the floor, packing up all his albums and discs and videos to give to me.
‘I don’t want them, Walter. I swear, I’ll throw it all straight in the trash.’ I held up Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. ‘Imagine this in the dumpster. That’s what you’ll be doing.’
‘Look, I’ve already said all the goodbyes I need to. I’ve given all my money to you, to Chantelle.’ He grabbed the jar of cash from the shelf and plunked it in front of me. ‘Here’s the last of it. It’s yours. I’ve made up my mind.’
Walter stopped moving and I stared at his face. He stared back. I kept waiting for him to crack a smile, to show his teeth, but his mouth remained a flat line.
‘You’re really going to do this,’ I said.
He nodded, turned away, and started to roam around the apartment again. ‘This is the final act.’ He carried a stack of books from the shelf to the table, then doubled back and put them in a bag. Moved the bag to a chair. Opened drawers and closed them.
I slumped down to the floor in front of the couch. My eyes followed him around the room. ‘But, it’s not a movie.’ I felt tears on my cheeks.
‘It would be better if it was.’ Walter paced in tighter and tighter circles. He rushed back to the bookshelf and grabbed something else. He waved a piece of paper at me. ‘Look, I’ve even written up some suggestions for the denouement.’
I took the list from him. ‘Joy Division? Carmina Burana? Are you kidding me? I’m a musician, Walter. Not a fucking deejay.’
Walter stopped moving. He crouched down and eased the paper out of my hand. ‘I’m sorry, Nathan. Of course you are. You’re a professional musician. And this is terribly maudlin, you’re right.’ He folded the list and jammed it in his pocket. ‘I just get caught up in my own head, sometimes. I’m lucky to have found you.’
I wiped my nose on my sleeve and looked up. Walter’s face was scrunched with worry. ‘I was lucky to find you, too,’ I said, and meant it. By the window, the fern drooped, its leaves beginning to curl into little brown fists.
The next night, I sat at my computer and stared at the blinking cursor for over an hour before I addressed an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and wrote ‘HELP’ in the subject line:
No, I’m not okay. You were right about a lot of stuff. Everything I try to do, I’m in over my head. There’s nothing I can handle on my own. I don’t know how to handle this…
I hit ‘Send,’ then curled up in bed and waited. A few minutes later, I heard my email chime, but it was only a bounceback: ‘This email address is no longer valid.’
Seconds after, my cell rang. Walter said, ‘It’s time.’
I heaved the case onto Walter’s table and undid the snaps. I lifted the accordion out, shrugged on the shoulder straps, tightened the bass strap, and slid my hand through. It had been Grandpa’s squeezebox and no one else in the family wanted it when he died. I’d pulled it from a pile of old things my parents were going to take to the Sally Ann.
I stood on the other side of the door, as Walter prepared the bathroom. The door was open a crack and through it I could hear the rasp of a cigarette lighter and see flickers in the dark. A gentle splash and then Walter spoke: ‘I’m ready. You can come in now.’
I nudged the door open with my foot and stepped inside. The air was so dense with steam and incense, I nearly lost my breath. I backed against the inside of the door to close it, as my fingers began to move over the keys and buttons. The room was lit by candles clustered around the bathtub in which Walter lay.
Once my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I could see him watching me. I sat down on the toilet lid and played – a composition of my own, in the sad, French style. During a drawn-out pause, I heard Walter whisper, ‘Like Wes Anderson. Cinematic.’ I compressed the bellows. I played louder.
My eyes didn’t know where to go. Everything they fell on was wrong. Walter’s thick hair plastered to his skull from the damp. The candlelight and incense smoke making roving ghosts against the tile. His body distorted by the water, genitals rudely breaking the surface. The glint off the straight-razor resting in the soap dish. Walter’s unblinking eyes. His long face, grim in its placidness.
I closed my eyes and let my fingers find the keys.
Illustration adapted from