The Laurel Leaf, Part 4: All This Sound From a Single Tone

Just lean on Catherine a little more, Kessler told Arthur, and it all sounded so easy when he said it like that. For all his agency’s supposed expertise in snooping, however, what Kessler didn’t know was that it was Cath’s idea to bring everyone along with her, not the other way around, as she had just as little confidence in a visit to her brother as anyone else involved in the Laurel Leaf recording. What Kessler apparently didn’t, but should have known, was that the last time Ian allowed his sister the privilege of her brief company, it ended disastrously. In fact, it almost ended her partnership with Rafa then and there. 

It surprised Cath back then, but it shouldn’t have. In case it wasn’t clear with what brief snippets of his interactions with his family and half-family we’ve seen so far, Ian was a juggernaut of pure antagonistic force in all their lives. He was the complete opposite of his infinitely compassionate little sister, he never saw a chance to take advantage of someone’s intellectual or emotional weakness that he didn’t take. He constantly made fun of his sister to the point of tears, he talked back to his father until the latter, in a shocked and exasperated huff, simply gave up trying to set him straight and left him to his mother, and he openly mocked Rafa and Sherwood in what little opportunities he had to even be around them. His mother was the only person in his life he ever respected, or at least never dared show his scorn for, if there was any for him to show for her. And the only time in his life that he ever showed even a shred of tenderness to anyone was the morning of his mother’s funeral, when he stood by his sister and held her tight in his arms as she bawled into his shoulders, standing like a statue himself among the elaborate marbles of the old Sicilian church, shielding Cath and allowing her to weep while not daring to show anyone else he was capable of the same emotion. 

He was as much the opposite of Cath in his capacity for musical talent, and in that aspect as much a force of negative antagonism as his sister wasn’t. When every single aria was to Cath a Sisyphean ordeal, to Ian music performance and composition alike came so naturally to him it more often than not bored him. Anything that had two verses and a chorus made him get up and turn off the radio, any libretto with a pauper who loved a rich girl and traded identities with a general who was already cross-dressing to get into the king’s guard or whatever made him shut off and fidget in his seat in the opera house. Everything he set out to do musically, then, was a direct challenge to the tastes of the day, or any day, a riposte against popularity and pleasantry. 

Since Ian began recording his own music at thirteen years old, there are to date over 400 full-length recordings in his complete discography. In the year 2019 alone Ian released thirty albums. Most of them are impossible to listen to, sometimes practically speaking as much aesthetically. One such album was a set of four hour-long tracks designed to be listened to simultaneously. Patrons were required to show a music vendor proof of owning four separate music players, and if they could not do so they were ordered, by the record company in accordance to Ian’s wishes, not to sell the record to them. Unopened copies of Doors Open at 12:00 AM began to infest thrift stores with a virulence not seen since R.E.M.’s Monster

Most of Ian’s other recordings are just as inaccessible by his personal design as well. The lion’s share of them are just deliberate noise, a feedbacking mistake from an earlier recording experiment extended to an hour length to technically fulfill the terms of the latest contract. You could tell who the poseurs were, when someone would say something like their favorite album by his was, say, 1938, and the moment they turned on the record they’d cover their ears and grimace like a kid who took a dare from his friends that sure he could eat a whole habanero, no problem. Sometimes, however, a real gem could be found among the chaff of Ian’s discography, a handful of pearls mixed in with the slops thrown to the swine en masse. For about a year and a half since immediately after the country elected Donald Trump, Ian released four albums that explored the theme of old ballroom records deteriorating over time, as a metaphor for extreme dementia and memory loss. Sometimes, on a day where he was just bored, he would riff out a whole album or two on a synthesizer that aped the Tangerine Dream gallop better than even Tangerine Dream could do from the late eighties on. There was a sterile beauty to the Antarctic-themed Permafrost, an ambient concept album that explored extreme cold temperatures and featured tracks called “Torrington,” “Amundsen,” “Titus,” “Worsley,” “Falcon Scott,” and other real explorers who died in the middle of their polar expeditions. But those were few and far between. 

This attitude extended to his live shows as well. It was a risk, purchasing a ticket and attending an Ian Parker performance. Every now and then he’d put on a legitimate show and play songs from an album he had put out in an effort to promote it, you know, like most bands do. More often than not, though, he would simply hook up his MacBook to the venue’s sound system and push spacebar on the master tracks for a noise album of his choosing. There were even reports of some performances where he didn’t even have the courtesy to sit there on stage and stare at the screen. He actually got up from some of these shows, went out to other bars and music halls, had a couple drinks, and made sure to be back with plenty of time before he knew the track would stop playing. Being a fan of Ian Parker is like panning for gold, having the patience to sort through mud and silt to find just a speck of gold dust. It was like being in a loveless relationship where you think you’re finally going to leave him for good after enduring abuse after abuse, only for him to surprise you with a rare gesture that made you remember why you loved him in the first place. 

Ian’s other obsession, aside from inscrutability for its own sake, was death. Ever since his mother passed away it was the one constant theme that appeared in all his work. Nowhere was this most apparent than in An Ocean Only You Can See, to date still the most accessible release of Ian’s career, and one that anyone could be comfortable in calling a masterpiece. If they weren’t strictly-speaking verse/chorus/verse, it was the only album of his to feature what could even sort of be regarded as traditional songs, with good songwriting stalwarts like words, stanzas, chords, song structure, and variations on themes. But lest anyone get the wrong idea, this was an Ian Parker album, and so it featured his usual trademarks of drone, distorted organ, light-to-no rhythm tracks, and experiments in real-time tape degradation. Even the “catchiest” song by Ian ended up sounding like a decaying field recording of a church choir of old people singing at a wake. 

It was on this album that one could also find the closest thing he ever came around to a hit single. “A Single Hope” featured the most of his distorted, warbling, but no less impressive operatic vocals that only could have come from his mother’s early tutelage. 

Certain way you twist your spine

The space your tender hands divide

Certain way you strangely loop

Awash in ink and storybooks

All this sound from a single tone

All these lies from a single hope 

A single hope

There is not a single word in the song that lasts less than a half note. While every word that comes out of his mouth is sung with care and deliberation, Ian had a far less sense of reverence for the lyrics themselves. The words were already hard to understand just by the way the song was originally recorded, and in typical Ian fashion he refused to release the lyrics. The funny thing was, he was going to release them, until someone remarked in an interview how helpful it would be if they were available. This resulted in lyric websites and search engines basically taking wild guesses and publishing them with a nervous shrug. 

Certain way you fold your grace

To unclasp the fingers on your ribcage

It also didn’t help that Ian himself would read such attempts at his lyrics, and very often perform those incorrect guesses at his own shows. There are at least three occasions on record where you can clearly see Ian singing the words “glory sound from a simple heart,” which still sound good coming out of his mouth, but make considerably less sense than the true lyric.  His mother once said “the music is the sauce, the opera is the pasta that gets the sauce to your mouth,” and what was this, the way Ian treated the words to his own song, but a real-world application of his mother’s theory?

To release all that was not love

To release all that was not love

All this sound from a single tone

All these lies from a single hope

A single hope

But let’s all be honest. You’re not here to read about Ian’s best-charting song in spite of itself. No, you all heard about the one time Ian ever agreed to make a music video. You want to hear about the infamous music video for “A Single Hope.” Well, let’s get to it. 

You could excuse Laurel Leaf Records back then. They were a young upstart company, they didn’t know better, they had just signed nineteen-year-old Ian Parker for a five-record contract, and maybe they never heard that story about how he lost his shit with that photographer way back when he was in the ‘Woods. They wanted a single from his debut album with the label, An Ocean Only You Can See. They more or less correctly identified that single as “A Single Hope.” They told Ian they would need a video to promote the song. He refused at first. They pressed him, and they also mentioned that it should be upbeat, like on a sunny island or something, to counteract how dour the song itself was. After some doing, he shrugged and shook his head, washing his hands like Pilate to the studio suits of all that was to come. 

The video began on a cruise ship, out in deep ocean. As Ian stood by the bow of the deck and looked out the horizon, singing the words, signifiers of wealth and luxury and over-the-hill anxiety passed by him over his shoulder: a conga line, old ladies sucking down mai tais, younger ladies sunbathing, a lecherous boomer hitting on them, and so on. All is well until about the minute and twenty mark, when a thud shakes the whole ship. Amid sudden panic, the formerly-reveling guests frantically crowd rescue boats and trample on others while Ian keeps singing, oblivious to what’s going on behind him. 

The ship lurches and tips over to a near-perfect 45-degree angle. The camera stays fixed on Ian’s face, like that Aronofsky trick that looks like the subject itself is wearing the steadicam rig, as behind him swimsuit-clad boomers careen down the deck like a school playground slide into the ocean. As Ian himself falls into the water and continues his song, his long black hair flowing with the water, behind him can be seen guests falling deeper and deeper, getting eaten by sharks, and just slowly… drowning, gasping, sucking in air and only getting salty water, all on camera. The clip ends with Ian wrapping up the song at the last a single hope as the camera lingers on three cruisers, their bodies floating behind him like flotsam, their eyes open and their faces still.

The effects, and the extras’ performances, were very good, to say the least. Disturbingly good. An urban legend came out of the shoot that suggested the effects were too good to be true, or perhaps we should say, too good to be fake. The Laurel Leaf executives brought Ian into their offices and asked him to address the rumors that he had the extras on the shoot drown in real time. His answer to them deflected those rumors in a way that really only Ian could have come up with: absolutely not, he told them, do you have any idea how many wrongful death lawsuits would have come out of something like that? Do you think I have even close to the amount of time or energy or resources to deal with all that? So then, they pressed him, you can unconditionally confirm that you didn’t purposely make a snuff film, to create some sort of extra layer of realism for the… Why would I have given a shit about realism? I never wanted to make the damn thing, remember? You’re the ones with nephews just out of RIT who all took the same underwater photography class, not me. 

You had to hand it to him, they were all excellent points. If Arthur had known his son years ago, back when he was struggling to figure out what kind of an ad campaign could effectively say fuck you to Parker Butter, he might have hired even him to direct the spots. 

The clip was pulled from any television outlet that would have put it in steady rotation, which is probably how Ian would have wanted it anyway, if he couldn’t have a label who just wouldn’t have made him make the video in the first place. One can still see “A Single Hope” if they really want to, just like how one can watch one of the ISIS beheading videos if they really want to. The executives spent the rest of the day devising a strategy to deal with stunts like this from him going forward. That next morning, Ian hand-delivered a manila envelope to Laurel Leaf Records that contained CD recordings of four more albums, and bluntly told everyone in the board room that his contract was dissolved. 

That kind of behavior was what Cath was always up against any time she accepted his invitations every three months to visit him in his studio. The last time she did so was give or take a year after that Halloween party, when the country had ample time to enjoy the debut collaboration between her and Rafa. After they ate dinner, which Ian always made whenever Cath came over, he simply got up and sat on a nearby keyboard. He played a little ditty on it, which she recognized as the main melody to “Colossus of Rhodes.”

—How did you… you said you didn’t listen to the album I sent you.

—I didn’t. 

—I don’t understand. That’s exactly what I…

—I was old enough to remember mom when you were a baby. Whenever you’d cry or get fed or whatever, she would always hum this tune to you, this one thing, over and over again. It was this.

He played “Colossus” once again. 

—It made me realize why I had a little melody of my own that I couldn’t get out of my head. She must have done the same thing when I was a baby. My own melody, my own legacy from my mother. 

He played another few lines of a small melody for Cath, not expecting or caring if she liked it or would remember it, and went on. 

—Rafa of course must have had the same thing with that one song, with that upper register hook at the end. That’s the only reason I can think of why he refuses to let anyone else sing it, anyone who actually can, that is…

—Are you talking about “The Laws Have Changed?”

—How the hell should I know what you call them?

—Okay, well… why are you telling me this?

—It’s obvious you wanted to ask me what I think about your latest project. 

—I didn’t…

—It’s a sad fact of our lives that our parents doled out their traits to us the wrong way. You have all of our mother’s compassion, and all of our father’s mediocrity. I have all of our mother’s talent, and all of our father’s impatience. The only way you could have risen up from your limitations was to take care of your melody, mom’s gift to you, and use it at just the right time, to maybe create something better than yourself. And you squandered it on a petty joke at my expense, and produced it with the latest scion of the man who’s been mooching off my mother and father since they were as old as we are now. You want to know what I think about your song? It’s not bad. It’s a little better than what I’m used to hearing from you. It’s also the best you’re ever going to achieve for the rest of your life. 

The revelation stunned the wind out of Cath. She stammered for a bit before she found her words again.

—Well, we… we seem to be making a lot of people happy lately, with…

—I hate to break it to you like this, but our president makes a lot of people happy at his rallies. Your local megachurch pastor makes a lot of people happy every Sunday. That doesn’t mean there’s any substance behind what they do either. 

—Well, fine. I don’t want to argue with you about it. Maybe you should just go ahead and be the only person in the world who chooses not to listen to it then, if you…

—Oh, good, I see we’re twelve-year-olds again, and we’ve gone back to “if you don’t have anything nice to say.” You know what, Cath? I wish I could choose not to listen to it. But I can’t, can I? It’s all I fucking hear when I step outside. It’s on the radios when I go into a shop, or when I get a ride in a cab. It’s on the ads I have to watch any time I use any service online. What makes you think I haven’t already listened to it front and back, what makes you think I won’t tomorrow, all over again, whether I want to or not? What did you honestly want me to say to you? I love you as much as I can afford to in light of arbitrarily occupying the same uterus as you did years ago, but I have better things to do than think about your warbling along to our half-brother’s hack tunes. And if you want my advice? So do you. 

She avoided Ian for a long while after that, and after twice not accepting his invitations Ian stopped sending them. The encounter, as much as she didn’t want to admit it, like someone who can’t help but feel like they’re sick but too stubborn to go see a doctor, affected her so much it began to interfere with her music. Performances by the Challengers became nothing special, her voice began to sound like someone just stumbling into a karaoke version of her vocal parts for the first time. Her voice cracked, she occasionally missed upper register notes. Even Rafa noticed a difference, and put two and two together by realizing it all started after the last time she visited her brother. For the first time since they started, she grew angry with him, and bore it in silence. Rafa would challenge her to fix a part, or to maybe stand up to her brother if he said anything to her, but she shrugged him off every time. Instead, she started to notice in spite of herself everything that Ian told her. She couldn’t bring herself to sing “Colossus” anymore. And she began to notice that high register hook on “The Laws Have Changed,” and did what no one, neither Sherwood nor the Challengers nor any fans ever dared to do to Rafa anywhere other than behind his back: she called him out on the fact that he had never hit that part since he first recorded it. 

She woke up one morning deciding to let Rafa know that day that she was leaving the Challengers. Instead, she received the shocking news that the Make-A-Wish Foundation had reached out to Rafa. They wanted the Challengers to perform for a nine-year-old girl who had three months left to live. From that moment they spent what time they had before when Rafa said yes up to the date of the meeting to practice every song they ever recorded, not daring to risk telling her that they hadn’t played a certain song she wanted to hear in a while, no matter what. 

Her name was Henrietta Shaw. They showed up to her hospital room and saw a girl who lit up immediately when her heroes arrived, and if she wasn’t wearing a gown and had a shaved head you would have never imagined she was ill. They almost forgot themselves which charity organization invited them to play for her, so full of life and so excited to see the Challengers as she was. 

One of the first songs she requested was an old one, “This Is the World of the Theater.” They were lucky that they did that dress rehearsal of their entire output, as that one would have never occurred to either Cath or Rafa. Sustaining that train-track chugalug common in most of Rafa’s compositions, it took on a fun new quality in the stripped-down hospital room unplugged arran

gement Rafa made specially for the occasion. Cath was also surprised to see her singing along, sometimes with a better command of the lyrics than her! She relished the sounds and textures of the pre-chorus like tasting her mother’s Italian cooking for the first time, simply realizing that it was fun to sing, just like Cath or Rafa must have realized when they put those specific syllables together in that specific rhythm and melody: 

Is it too late to live in your heart? 

Too late to burn all your civilian clothes? 

As you break into a million parts

Too late to learn and barely come to blows?

She joined Cath and Rafa and all the other Challengers in the chorus, as Rafa plunked down on his Casio keyboard, as his bandmates strummed their acoustic instruments in time, as Cath swayed back and forth with her while shaking her tambourine.

Conquerors of the daybreak

Conquerors of the daybreak

This is the world of the theater

This is the world of the theater

They had a set planned of six or so songs, but she was insatiable. They ended up playing a full two and half hour set with an encore to boot. They even pretended to leave the room and waited outside as she cheered and hooted and clapped for them to come back and keep playing. It’s a good thing they did an encore too, because Cath was surprised to hear from Henrietta that her all-time favorite song was “Colossus of Rhodes.” While Cath always saw it as a one-off song about her brother to get her foot in the door of the songwriting room, and while Ian regarded it as a squandering of her birthright and her musical potential, this little girl only saw it as the song that made her want to be a singer just like her hero. 

They all gave her a hug and left for good, and though they occasionally followed up with her and her family they never saw her again. 

Somewhere in that set the Challengers played that day, there was a jumble and mishmash of Rafa’s contributions as well as hers, so hopelessly mixed together that it was just as futile to demarcate exactly whose began and ended where as it was to count the grains of sand on a beach. Maybe her mother’s gift to her, her own special melody, was mixed in there somewhere along with Rafa’s as well. Maybe the day before Cath began that show, she had fresh doubts about her purpose in life thanks to her visit with Ian. Maybe compared to whatever lofty heights Ian was trying to reach, making pop songs with Rafa was beneath her. But it was funny how quickly all of that evaporated when they played the first note of a set for someone with months to live. No matter what happened after that, she knew that Henrietta Shaw, who knew she would not live past nine years old, wanted to be sure that before she passed on she saw Catherine Parker and Rafa Williams play the songs she loved most of all, the songs that they wrote together. The next time Ian’s words ever threatened to get to her, Cath would remember how important that day was, and never forget that it deserved her respect. 

When they finished the show, and all the other Challengers went their separate ways, it was actually Rafa who started to cry first. 

The last show for Henrietta Shaw, just like any other time she was slated to see her brother, was her armor today when she pushed the doorbell to Ian’s apartment. 

A few moments later the door buzzed and let her inside, she walked up and entered the unlocked door to find Ian already making the bucatini all’amatriciana. The salty water was boiling but the thick strands of pasta hadn’t been submerged yet. The cast-iron skillet was piping hot, and as she let herself inside Ian had scraped all the garlic, red pepper flakes, and chopped pieces of guanciale, or fatty pork jowl, off the cutting board with the edge of the knife and into the pan. He chopped a couple shallots while waiting for the fat from the pig meat to render and sizzle before throwing that ingredient in with the others. They exchanged pleasantries for a while, neither one acknowledging that he had nearly destroyed her whole professional life last time and it had been a few years since. He splashed the remainder of the dry pinot in his glass into the pan and let it reduce as he offered his sister a glass of her own, which she accepted but didn’t drink much of. He then threw the diced tomatoes in the pan, which she could tell were fresh that morning and he had peeled and stewed before. A little bit of salt to the tomatoes, a vigorous stir of the whole pan, and only after he turned the heat down to low and slapped a lid on it did he finally put the pasta in the water. Both would be done cooking at the same time. 

They ate in silence for a long while, Ian twirling his pasta on a spoon the way his father did, as it took less time to get it on the fork and into your mouth that way. Though the dish was a mainstay of her mother’s for as long as they grew up, the first time Cath had this dish from her brother she couldn’t handle the loads of red pepper and harsh dry wine he put into it, but she built a tolerance for it over time. When they were both about halfway done she broke the silence.

—I know you don’t like talking to dad. But he’s right, something very important has come up, and it affects all of us.

—I know. 

—You, what?

—I already know why you’re here. The Handel performance. 

—How… in the world, do you know that?

—What if I told you I’ve already seen it? 

It was all she could do to finish her dish without choking on the pepper as she listened to Ian explain how years ago, at a time where only his parents could tell him what to do, he arranged to secretly attend the show at the Laurel Leaf. He didn’t have a ticketed seat, but he stood up in one of the boxes and saw his mother perform all the same.  

—So you must know about the… how it made all those people… The man that dad spoke to called it a “pure cathartic experience.”

—Jesus. Leave it to the government to make everything sound like it came out of a test tube.

—What do you call it, then?

—An Orphic experience. You remember Orpheus? 

—Sure. He went to the underworld to bring back his true love. But he looked back and lost her forever.

—Sure, that’s what everyone knows. But it’s important to remember he was a musician. When all the other myths of that day reward all the warriors, jocks, and lunkheads who can throw a rock at a three-headed beast. All the other heroes transcend death and the underworld to be rewarded with immortality in the hearts of men as well as in Olympus. But it’s the musician, not a burly demigod with a lion skin ripped off the whole animal with bare hands, but an effete man of artistic expression and passivity, who gets the chance to do the same and fails. Spectacularly. Tragically. It was necessary for him to fail in such a way, to receive exactly what he needed to create a pure Orphic experience.

Cath finished her meal, and Ian waited while she without a word took his and her empty plates to the sink and rinsed them off. 

— Everyone knows who Orpheus is, but most people forget the most important part of the myth. After he is denied a chance to save his love, he spends the rest of his days weeping and playing music. He only worships Apollo, who gave him his talent in the first place. His music is so sad that anyone who hears it can’t help but weep along with him. Even if someone had a quarrel with him before, the rocks and branches they throw at him weep and refuse to hit him. His music was so beautiful, so sad, so pure, that it threatened to make the whole world stop, it threatened to end burnt offerings to the gods once and for all. Only one thing stopped him in the end: a pack of noisemaking women in a Dionysiac cult, who forced him to stop crying and dance and bang the drums with him. Since neither one could hear the other, neither one responded to the other, neither did Orpheus join the cult nor did the cult leave him alone. They ended up getting so angry with Orpheus that they beat him and ripped him apart. 

Ian gulped down the glass of wine before him. 

—That’s what an Orphic response is. It’s being affected by music for its own musicality. It’s not just a sad song, with a sad story behind it, but sad music itself. It makes a listener respond, no matter their background, no matter their emotional state, with, well sure, pure catharsis. And just like those Dionysiac cultists found out on accident, there is only one cure for it: Noise. Complete, utter, thudding idiocy. The only way to protect yourself from it is to be too stupid to let it affect you. It’s what mom created when she recorded that aria, by accident or on purpose, I don’t know. But no, it doesn’t make you just kill yourself. It makes you understand exactly what you have to understand. Those people only wanted to see mom because she was a trendy thing to see, and it was in a trendy venue. They weren’t ready for that kind of insight, and they let it ruin them. Anyway, that stooge that spoke to dad has the wrong idea. If he really wanted to make a super kill-yourself machine out of it, it would only work if everyone saw the same performance at the same time, in the same venue. It’s too late to make it into a weapon. See, Cath? Artists against hoplites, nothing’s changed in over three thousand years. 

—But… you saw it? How did you make it out?

—I made it out okay because it didn’t change anything about me. I’ve wanted to die for my whole life. 

Cath was already in such a state by Ian’s words that she opted not to say anything until he was done entirely or unless asked.

—Not out of grief, but disgust. I hate being alive. I hate sharing this planet with other people. I hate making music. I hate it when people like my music. I hate that I have such a talent for it, and it’s the only talent I have, and it’s also not enough of a talent to achieve want I really want. And I hate that I’m too much of a coward to end it all myself. Do you remember what I said to you before, when you came up after you made your first album with Rafa?

—Sure. That I had all of mom’s compassion and all of dad’s mediocrity. It was hard to forget.

—You have to understand that I didn’t mean it personally. I meant that it was absolutely true. And I wish I could change it. I wish you could have gotten all the talent, and I would have just been a surly drooling idiot my whole life. 

Ian went back to the piano and played out the part again, over and over, until it regressed into a banged-out version that hit the general areas of the right keys. He stopped and took a few deep breaths before continuing.

—I am under so much pressure to make this count. To do exactly what I was supposed to do. If I fuck it up I won’t be able to live with myself, but if I just sit here and overthink it, like Hamlet… And who am I even doing it for? The rest of humanity? I hate humanity. I hate the whole sum total of human existence. Remember a few years ago, back when the coronavirus came out?

—I don’t think I’ve heard of them…

—The actual virus, Cath.


—I think it was the most unbearable it ever was for me back then. With every single new event came every single instantaneous response from every dull plodding idiot with a phone. Everyone’s sad it’s happening, obviously, but then everyone also has to be a school-nanny tattletale and tell everyone over and over again to wash your hands and stay at home, and everyone also has to protest the stay at home order because of course it’s a deep state conspiracy, and everyone has to post the continuing death toll as if that’s going to help anyone at all, as if everyone isn’t just waiting for the news to finally come out. Every day, with every new development, I could predict exactly the same shallow surface-level responses from thousands of shallow surface-level people at a time. Everyone has to respond to everything that happens, whether it’s necessary or not, whether it’s interesting or not, or god forbid, whether it’s funny or not. No one can just either be interesting or shut up if they know they aren’t. We’ve been here for thousands of years, and we’ve used up all the novel responses to life and art already. Meanwhile we are baking the planet to death and shitting into the oceans and streams, and for what? If an alien power came to this planet and asked us to justify how we’ve been treating it, what could we possibly say to convince them it was all worth it? Beethoven’s fucking ninth? 

A tense silence as Cath waited for Ian to finish, while the latter poured another glass of wine.

—I’m not going to watch this thing with you, first and foremost because I can’t stand to be in the same room with dad. Also, I’m not going to see it because I know that the effect the government stooge hopes it will have on us will not happen, no matter how much I want it to. And I’m not going to see it because I already know that mom figured out what I’ve been trying to do for years, a way to end human meddling on earth while also letting them know in no unclear terms just how useless their emotions and expression of them really are. I’m not going to watch it because if I do, it will make me envious of her, and it will also detract from time I could be spending trying to replicate the exact same thing. 

It seemed like this was a good spot for Ian to wrap up and let Cath respond, but neither of them expected that Rafa would let himself into the unlocked door just as easily as she did before. 

—What the hell are you doing here? Cath, did you…

—No, I had no idea… I didn’t…

—Don’t worry, she really didn’t know I was coming. I, uh, waited outside the building for someone to open the door, and then pretended I lived here so they could let me in. 

—Well done. So what do you want? I’d offer you some leftover pasta, but I don’t like you. 

—You know what I want. The same thing the rest of us want. 

Ian hesitated for a moment, rubbing both hands down his face, as Rafa continued.

—You don’t have to watch it, you don’t even have to stay longer than five minutes. It’s the very least you could do for us.

—What makes you think you have even a modicum of a right to appeal to what I owe to my family? 

—We all in this room have the same mother. And it’s clear that she wanted us to…

—The last time I acted in accordance to my mother’s wishes, I joined your stupid boy band. Fool me once. 

—Okay… well, then let me explain it to you in completely selfish terms, the only terms that you’ll understand. This is important to Cath. If you don’t what we’re asking you to do, it would be cruel to her. And the last time you were cruel to her, it almost made her quit our band. She’s my business partner, you understand? You’re fucking with my business.

—And that’s supposed to persuade me? I wish you both would quit that band…

—Well, maybe not everyone can just hole up in their own recording studio that their parents bought for them and record their fifth album in a row that’s just Mongolian throat singing and farts or whatever…

—You’ll have to be a little more specific than that. When you put out your third album full of, yet again, high school boys who want to fuck their girlfriends at the lookout in the back of their cars, I was on number three hundred and five. Sometimes I forget which one is which. 

—Yeah, you have a point there. Sometimes they’re hard to remember, they all just kind of blend into one self-indulgent jerking-off waste of time with another…

—I’m sorry, but who do you think you are? You bottom feeder, scavenger, you fucking vampire. You are nothing without my family. Your father would have nothing without my mother, and you would have nothing without my sister. 

—Jesus, you really believe what the music press writes about you. You really think that just because a good review in Laurel Leaf said so, you’re part of this magical dynasty of musical geniuses, and your sugar-plum fairy godmother waved her magic wand over you and gave you the right to be an asshole to everyone who cares about you. You really can’t believe that some hoi polloi like me could ever possibly create something that people could actually enjoy, could actually find meaningful in their lives. 

—You’re wrong. It’s not that I can’t believe it. It’s that I can’t care. I can’t, even if I wanted to. If that’s your business, do you want to know what my business is? The universe. Every day I’m ploughing through the infinite frontiers of the human heart. Buddy, when you walk out the door, I’m not even going to remember your fucking name. 

—I’m not walking out your door without you.

—I’m sorry? I don’t think I heard you right. 

—Yes you did. Either you come with us, or I’m going to beat shit out of you and drag you to my father’s house. 

Glued to each of their spots before, Ian to the table and Rafa by the door, they finally did that middle-school boys about to fight thing, stepping directly into each other’s faces and looking each other down. 

—I’d like to see you try. And after that I’d like to see what breaking into a private residence and assaulting someone will get you. 

—You’ll never get the chance… 

—That’s enough! Both of you, shut up! 

They finally noticed Cath, who had withdrawn off to the side until she could come up with the proper words or until the conversation had gotten too out of hand, and this time, it was hard to say which had happened.

—Rafa, we’re not going anywhere with Ian he doesn’t want to go himself. Calm down.

Rafa deferred to Cath and backed off to the door.

—Ian, you’ve spent a lot of time telling me what you hate. Let me tell you what I hate. I hate that I love you so much, and that you think it’s only because I have to since you’re my brother. I hate that I think about you at least once every day, and if you ever think about us at all, it’s to think so much less of us. I hate how jealous I am of you, I hate how in a single afternoon you can create something so beautiful, something I never heard before in my whole life, something I wish I could do with even a fraction of your talent, and you think it’s a joke, and you think it’s stupid that other people could like it. I hate that you’ve spent so many years of your life hating people, hating your music, hating life, and it never once occurred to you to talk to me about it. And most of all, I hate that you all think I’m so weak, that either of you thought that just talking to you today would have destroyed me. I hate that I almost thought that as well. I hate crying over you, I hate crying over everything… Listen to me very carefully. We have a film to see, and we need you to see it. If you don’t join us today, then no one will see it. And more importantly, you will get what you want. You really hate people so much? You really never want to see anybody every again? It will start with me. I will never speak to you, I will never acknowledge you if someone asks, I will never think about you. I will erase you from my life, and I will never waste a single tear on you again. And if that happens, I hope for your sake that that’s what you really want. 

If there was one thing that was really getting to Arthur with this whole ordeal, it was the fact that everyone apparently had carte blanche to enter his apartment, be it family, sort-of-friends, or government agents. Arthur, since he let Agent Kessler into his apartment that week and a half ago, that nothing would surprise him anymore. So if he had been a glass-is-half-full kind of man, he would have at least acknowledged that he was surprised when he found the man at his safe, with safety goggles on his face, a live blowtorch in one hand and a power drill in the other. 

—What the fuck?

Kessler took a second to look behind and see Arthur, and then, with what one could perhaps call efficiency not from a government agency, he dropped his tools and slipped off his goggles in an instant to scramble toward the door. This was a miscalculation, as Arthur had just entered that door, and was close enough to intercept him and drag him back to the safe.

—You want to open my safe, huh? Sure thing, buddy, and wait till you see what’s in it! 

It took Arthur a few seconds, and with no drill or torch, to enter a few numbers and open the thing up. Kessler could see that there was indeed no film in the safe, but rather, just as Arthur warned him before, a single handgun. He took it out and pointed it at the agent, who cowered back into a wall and kept his hands up.

—I was on to you last time you were here, and you made such a big deal about me keeping it in safe. It’s not even here, dipshit.

—Where is it? Is it at Sherwood…

—Wouldn’t you like to know? Look through your databases or phone cameras or whatever. I’m surprised you didn’t record me entering my combination. 

—I… I don’t have access to… the agency resources I would otherwise… 

—What? Why wouldn’t you have access to your agency resources?

Kessler said nothing, stammered, hesitated. Arthur kicked him in the leg and pointed the gun closer to his face.

—Start talking, asshole. 

—I was not, strictly speaking, ah… authorized by my agency, to… carry out this mission. 

—What the fuck does that mean?

Another moment of silence from Kessler.

—Is this sanctioned by the NSA or not?

—It is, in a certain capacity.

—In what capacity?!

—In, ah… in my capacity, as an agent of the NSA. 

—Goddamn it. God damn it! Why? Why did you…

—It’s obvious, isn’t it?

—…you, saw the film, didn’t you? Or maybe some of it?

Kessler didn’t answer him long enough to answer him.  

—I can’t… I truly can’t believe this is happening. I can’t wrap my head around how much reckless harm you have done to me and my family. I can’t even begin to imagine who to report this to, or what kind of compensation would be appropriate for what you’ve done to me. The only reason I don’t kill you right now is because I believe that you really are an NSA agent, and I don’t want that kind of heat on me. 

—Oh, why don’t you shut up? 

Arthur, even though he had the gun and by extension control of the situation, was taken aback by this outburst for a little bit. 

—First of all, whoop de do, you have a gun. Guess what, I have one too. See?

In less than a second later he drew his own piece and pointed it at Arthur. 

—And just like everyone else, I had to learn five kinds of karate and hapkido and judo and whatever, so keep dreaming if you think you have a chance in hell against me in a fight. Even without NSA resources I could kill you with a thought, and the only reason I won’t is… ah… because I’m technically not cleared to do that right now. So let’s cut the bullshit and drop our weapons then, huh? 

After a long tense silence, they both more or less did so at the same time, kicking them on the floor a several yards away from them. 

—Anyway, I don’t want to kill anyone. I just want to see the film. 

—Why do you think you deserve it?

—Why do I need to prove to you that I do? I wouldn’t have even come out here if I didn’t have to. Any other family and I could have opened the thing myself. It was your son. Your goddamn son! You think it was hard for you, dealing with him? There is no digital information of him on record anywhere. No social media, no emails, no photographs. Look at this shit! 

Kessler took out his own phone and cycled through photo after photo, of grainy tabloid snapshots, and of magazine covers that featured variations on the same theme of Ian shaking his head back and forth to a slow-shutter speed, blending his whole head into a horizontal blob of motion blur. 

—That infamous photo shoot with Laurel Leaf magazine is the last clear photograph of him ever taken. And he was fourteen!

He put his phone away and went on. 

—Goddamn it. If we really want to talk about it, you are the last person who deserves this. I’ve read up on you, I know all about you. You could have gone to her show, but while she was giving the performance of a lifetime, you were writing an op-ed about how people should still dress formally when they work from home. You talk about how we should be more like European socialism one week and then the next week say we should still vote for Joe Biden. You even contributed to his campaign. God, the only thing more inconsistent, more worthless than your actual life is your political writing. There was never a moment in your life where you didn’t have millions of dollars at your beck and call, you’ve never had to work, you’ve never suffered, not really… But even if you weren’t just another rich anonymous out-of-touch asshole, this will still outlive you. Can anyone name a single ancient Sumerian potentate, or do they only know about that time at all because of Gilgamesh? Does anyone give a goddamn about the Earl of Sussex’s great betrayal or the dalliance between Lord Shaftesbury and the Lady Dowager Spenser or whoever the fuck landed gentry in 1500’s England? No, they care about Shakespeare and John Dowland. A hundred, a thousand years from now, no one’s going to care about the political leaders of the day, or what businesses came out on top, or you or anyone in your family. They’re going to care about that recording. It’s bigger than you, Arthur Parker, and it’s bigger than me, and before I die I want to see it, even if it kills me. 

Arthur took a few deep breaths after it became clear that Kessler was done and sat in a nearby chair, the same one the latter helped himself to when he surprised Arthur at his place the day before. 

—Yeah, I remember that op-ed. Let me ask you something, when you were rooting through my information, reading through my whole digital profile, did you find out if I framed and hung that article on my wall, or maybe the stub from the check I got from the LA Times? Or did you find out the truth in there, that I regret writing that article every day of my life? Did you see in there that because I didn’t enjoy a bunch of people singing in a language I don’t know about a story I don’t care about, that I didn’t love my wife? Did you read up on exactly how I felt the moment I found out she had slept with my best friend? What about when I first told my daughter she had passed away, and I held her in my arms as she cried for two hours straight? How about when I held her ashes in Sicily, and I watched my two children hold them as well? Or the first time I heard my son sing? Or the first time I saw how happy my daughter was in her own band? Maybe a thousand years from now people won’t care about me, but it’s mutual, I don’t give a goddamn about them either. Right now, I care about me and my own. That recording, Agent Kessler, is mine. 

Arthur got up from the table and headed toward the door. 

—Come on, let’s go.

—Where… are you going?

—To Sherwood’s.

—…what? You mean… 

—You said it yourself, didn’t you? We have less than twenty-four hours. Move your ass.

Concluded in Part 5: Purpose Is No Country You Can Find

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