Noise Man

By Tom Doyle | January, 2020


Artwork by Jose Baetas.

Sunday, October 30, 1938

On the night they didn’t say “hello,” Kenny O’Reilly listened to his just-completed radio. He closed his eyes, smarting from the poor light, and tuned in some jazz. Nice. His brain jumped along to the beat, singing designs of wires and tubes and things better than tubes.

“Kenny. Dinner.” His mother’s tenement-flat voice snapped him out of his circuits. Mom must have held on dinner as long as she could, but his father’s steps weren’t near yet.

Kenny huffed the completed radio to the living room. “Can I test it out during dinner, Mom?” She murmured a yeah.

Dad had said that he had to fix some plumbing in the Bell Labs building, where he was the super. Often he didn’t stumble back until after midnight, even on a Sunday. He promised over and over that someday he was going to shuffle them out of Hell’s Kitchen into a real house.

Not that their life played as bad as their neighborhood sounded. Dad worked as super for this building too, so the flat for the three of them was spacious compared with their neighbors’. And even more important, the electricity performed.

“Dad’s going to be sorry he missed this pot roast,” Kenny said, smacking his lips. The Bergen-McCarthy routine came through loud and clear on the new radio. Kenny’s radios always sounded better than the buzzing junk in the stores.

Kenny had composed his first crystal set from odd bits of wire and a diode Dad had scrounged for him from the Labs’ waste bins. He had been three years old. He had progressed steadily through every related gadget he could make--transmitters, antennae--selling his earlier efforts to fund his purchases of more equipment, always improving, always improvising. Not a bad racket for a thirteen-year-old.

Mom just sat at the table, eating nothing, not seeming to hear him when he laughed at Charlie McCarthy. He listened. Her breathing sounded tired, tired and something else. She might be a little sore. He should be extra helpful cleaning up after dinner.

Dorothy Lamour started singing some mushy number. Kenny got up to change the station. Ah, a swing band. But then some announcer came on. “We take you now to Grovers Mill, New Jersey.”

Despite the New Jersey location, Kenny quickly recognized the scientifiction of The War of the Worlds. One of the actors did The Shadow too--Kenny could always distinguish the man under the character. What evil lurks in the heart of men? The Shadow knows.

The reporter’s microphone crashed, signaling that the Martians had got him. Mom’s chair squeaked. Kenny had been so wrapped up in the program that he had forgotten about Mom.

“Kenny, we have to go. Get your things together.” She spoke with deliberate calm, but Kenny could sense the fear.

She went into her bedroom and began to slam open drawers and throw clothes on the bed. She sniffed--had she had been crying? Ah crap, she believed this junk.

“Mom, it’s not real.”

She didn’t pause. When her bags were full, she dragged Dad’s spare tool kit from under the bed and pulled off the socket tray. Clang rattle. She reached into the kit and fished out a big wad of bills--the most money Kenny had ever seen. She stuffed the bills in a bag with her dresses. “Hurry up, boy. There isn’t much time.”

“C’mon, Mom. Think about it. It wouldn’t be worth any Martian’s plug nickel to come here.”

“Yes, I know. Now get packing.”

“But you don’t understand...”

She pressed her hands down hard on Kenny’s shoulders. “No, you don’t understand. We have to leave. Now.”

Kenny was stunned. Mom sounded nuts. “What about Dad?”

She turned away from him and went back to shoving clothing and jewelry into shabby bags. “He’ll be fine.”

“I’m, uh, I’m not going.”

Mom stopped again. She grabbed Kenny by the arm and pulled him towards his room. “Now! Can’t wait. Not another minute. I’ll die.”

But Kenny pulled against her. “I can’t leave Dad.” He couldn’t bear to even sound like a coward to his father. “You just go.”

She spoke right at him, her lips quivering. “Honey?” Her voice had a strange crack in it.

He rushed to reassure her. “I’ll just wait here to tell Dad. We’ll catch up with you later--up north. Then we can all skedaddle together.”

Kenny was talking on his feet. Mom wouldn’t get far before she heard the Martians weren’t real. Then she would just snap back. Kenny would try to keep Dad calm until then. It was the best plan, though it might cost him a piece of his hide.

Mom sighed as if he had just beaten her in a long race. “OK, Kenny, you win. I’ll meet you up north. When you’re ready, just call Aunt Maureen. She’ll know where.”

She finished filling two bags and dragged them to the door. Dropping the bags, she hugged Kenny. Hard. “I love you, honey. I will always love you. Don’t let anyone ever tell you different.”

And then, snick-snack, she was out the door.

An hour later, Dad stumbled in, out of breath and dirty from work. Kenny started to explain about Mom and the Martians.

“Martians. What kind of malarkey is this? She’s run off with some flimflam man, hasn’t she boy?”

“No, it was The Shadow guy on the radio and--”

Bam! Dad smacked his ear, as if he knew that was the worst thing he could do. Kenny just took the blow--always easiest not to fight it--and braced for the next smack. But Dad only stared at his huge callused hand. Then he sank into a chair and started to cry.

Kenny had never heard his father cry. It was the scariest, saddest sound he had ever known. He started to cry too.

Dad reached for him with one of his big hands. “It’s OK, boy. Everything’s going to be fine.” His voice became more even. “There aren’t any Martians. Your mother will be back soon.”

And that was how Kenny learned for certain that he could tell someone was lying, just from the music of their voice.

*****

The next day, when his father’s footsteps trailed off in the stairwell, he telephoned his Aunt Maureen, the dreaded Irish Republican Aunt. “Not here yet,” she snapped. No point in talking further--it was expensive.

But after he hung up, he wondered: would he have to call again, or would Mom call him? Either way, Dad would pound him if he found out. Kenny had always had Mom muffling Dad for him. Kenny wanted to hear what his Dad would do next, but he also wanted to stay out of his way.

So Kenny played hooky and wired the flat for sound. His radios were already in every room, their decorative boxes plenty large to conceal microphones and trailing wires. But if a radio was turned on, it would make listening difficult, so he also found other spots for mikes, like behind the headboard of Dad’s bed. Wearing headphones, Kenny could quietly attend to each mike. He also tapped the phone line. He could just listen, or he could join in on a call, or he could take the call over, disconnecting the regular telephone--a soft-shoe tap dance. Safely in his room, he could hear everything.

The next day, Kenny caught screaming hell at school, but it was a short day for All Saints so it wasn’t so bad. That night, sure enough, “brrrrng” just as his father stepped in the door. Kenny paused a measure for his father to pick up, and then tapped in.

“Hello. Will, is that you?”

“Maureen. Where’s my wife?”

Aunt Maureen’s light lilt dueled with his father’s like a duet about a hanging. “My sister isn’t here. I want to speak with Kenny. Could you please put him on the phone?”

“My boy won’t be speaking with any of youse, you lying whores. Now, put my wife on the phone.”

Kenny heard his opportunity. He flipped a switch, and disconnected his father. He heard his father slam the receiver into its cradle with a “goddammit.”

Kenny spoke as quietly as Aunt Maureen could hear. “It’s Kenny. Is she there?”

“I’m going to Paddy’s,” his father yelled, and slammed the door.

His Mom came on the phone. “Kenny? Oh, my baby. I’m so sorry.” Syncopated crying sounds.

“It’s OK, I didn’t understand. I’m coming. Where can I meet you?”

His mother hesitated. “I, I need to check with my friend, Kenny. He’s a nice man, a very nice man. I’m sure you’ll like him. I know he’ll like you.”

There it was again. Lies. They rang like atonal church bells in Kenny’s ears. A hell of a choice--the commanding devil he knew, or this unheard “friend.”

The need for his mother turned to mute stone inside him. “Maybe you should get things settled with your friend first.”

“Are you sure?” The relief outweighed any doubt in her voice. “What about your father?”

“I can play him.” He heard his own words, and realized that he believed what he was saying. He would just have to keep his ears open.

*****

Saturday, September 2, 1939

Saturday night, Dad brought another woman home. Her voice was old and full of cigarettes and booze, like Dad’s, only more perfumed. Dad insisted on introducing her to Kenny. Then they tumbled into Dad’s room. And Kenny listened. He always listened.

They used few words but many invitations, codes, calls, and responses. They lied a lot to each other, but neither sounded like they cared. The rhythm of bed noise was not quite even, but not quite jazz either.

He almost forgot that she was a stranger, and not his Mom. He missed his Mom. But Dad never got mean with these strangers. Was it like this with Mom and her friend now?

The sounds of music and bodies and bed wove together in his mind, building and building like a freight train coming towards him, random tones reaching up for a resolution. Boom! A fat transcendent chord hung in the air, obliterating tension and thought. Yes.

His Dad breathed heavily. No more interesting noise. Kenny switched to the radio while he tinkered with his latest composition: a portable battery-powered radio for his Dad to take with him in his cart at work. The radio also had a hidden transmitter. Kenny could keep an ear on Dad all day. He would hide a signal booster near the labs so that he could listen from home.

They interrupted Kenny’s impromptu with a news bulletin: Britain and France were declaring war on Germany. They sounded surprised by Poland. Kenny wasn’t. Even in German’s unmusical consonants, Kenny could tell that Hitler was full of shit.

His Dad thought that trouble for England was a good thing. His Dad was a Mick idiot. Sometimes scary, sometimes fun to listen to, but an idiot.

Still, there was something in Hitler’s Sprechgesang that was overwhelming. You didn’t care that it was shit. That was scary. Kenny would have to do something about that someday.

*****

Tuesday, October 15, 1940

Kenny listened to the war. London thundered in symphony, no jazz. “Murrow Hears Major Bombing in C Minor.” Dee dee dee da, Morse for V for Victory, with the IX Air Group flying by for Hitler’s Ode to Death. Keen.

Time for the local news. Kenny tuned in to his father’s work. He could relax--Dad was still there. Maybe he could pick up some more Labs talk that would help his radio designs. Maybe he could hear people bossing Dad around.

“Hey O’Reilly, whatcha got there?” A man’s voice, a lot younger than Dad’s. Open cadenced, friendly.

“A radio, Michael. My fifteen-year-old son built it for me.”

“May I take a peek?”

“Go right ahead.”

“Hmm.” Stations twisted. “Pretty good reception and sound. Runs on that battery? Let me look here.” A pause, then, “You’ve got a bright kid, O’Reilly. Could you bring him into work with you tomorrow? I’d like to talk radios with him.”

“I don’t know, he’s in school.” As usual, Dad was full of shit. “Why do you want to talk to him for?”

“It’s important. I can talk to your supervisor about it, but...”

“No, no. I’ll bring him.”

“Good. Tomorrow.”

Kenny was nearly deafened. The man had said he wanted to talk radios with him, and real respect had animated his words. Something else there too, but Kenny heard only the opportunity.

*****

The next day, Dad had Kenny accompany to work for the first time. Kenny had been around there before, but solo, to run his booster off a nearby power line.

They walked towards West Street and the full-block Bell Labs complex. Their strides were backed by the slow dark rhythm of a freight train passing overhead on the elevated High Line and through a tunnel in the front building. Holy Robert Moses.

On the tenth floor of the central building, they click-stepped through a chaotic open space of desks and tables arranged with apparent randomness. The space echoed, echoed with working men. Finally, they reached an office and Dad tapped. A young man squeaked the door open.

“You can leave him here,” said the voice from yesterday.

“But shouldn’t--”

The young man grabbed Kenny’s arm, pulled him in, and slammed the door.

An older man stood behind a desk. On the desk was Kenny’s radio, opened up, and parts scattered. The transmitter was at the center of the desk, and next to the transmitter, the booster.

“Care to explain this, boy?”

So Kenny explained his variations on existing design themes and parts. But this didn’t seem to make the older man any happier.

The younger man said, “That’s interesting, kid, fascinating actually, but what I think he meant was, why?”

So Kenny spoke-sung the melodrama of living alone with his father, how his father wasn’t always nice, and that when he wasn’t nice and was on his way home, Kenny wanted to be somewhere else.

“But what about what we do here? Have you been listening to that?”

Kenny grinned. “You bet. It’s great stuff. I’ve got lots of ideas for it, if you’d like me to explain.”

“That’s enough!” The old man was really angry now. “We should call the authorities.”

“You won’t,” said Kenny.

The younger man laughed unpleasantly and said, “Oh really, kid? And why’s that?”

“You want something.”

The older man glowered, angry-silent. Kenny stood still, worried only about what his father would say later. The younger man looked at the older man and shrugged his shoulders. The older man sighed and nodded.

The younger man offered his hand. “Kid, my name’s Mike O’Neill. This is my boss, Mr. Carleton. We’d like to hire you.”

“Me? I’m only sixteen.”

“You’re only fifteen. But you’re the future. We want you to work on every aspect of improving radio transmission and reception. The pay’s good. I’ll be your supervisor. You’ll be my noise man.”

A noise man. That rang true. Kenny thought that working with Mike would be really swell.

*****

Tuesday, September 15, 1942

On the night Kenny finally heard them say “hello,” he was listening for a signal on his new directional antenna--an enormous parabolic dish mounted atop a large tripod on the flat central roof of the Bell Laboratories complex.

“You sure this Martian salad bowl is working, kid?” asked Mike. Kenny held up an OK sign, and tried to block out the noise.

Even up here, this late, wearing a headset, noise. It was just after midnight, and the city was blacked out for civil defense except for searchlights sweeping the sky. Kenny missed the happy chorus of the lighted city--the roaring crowds at Dodger’s games, the shrieking rides at Coney Island. Instead, young men in uniform roamed the street in herds, on their way to slaughterhouses across the Atlantic and Pacific, trying to shout away death, trying to drag Kenny with them.

From the stairwell entrance, Kenny heard a faint clarinet. His father, no doubt dragging a mop and listening to his radio. During the day, his father stayed out of earshot, but now, with the building almost empty, every random sound reminded Kenny that Dad might be near.

It was harder to keep an ear on Dad without the transmitter in his radio. But Kenny had found a way to keep an ear on everyone. Kenny now had much of the Labs wired for sound. Sure, they had ways to detect listening devices, but not these, not yet.

Kenny pointed at the stairwell door. Mike laughed. “You a little nervous, kid?” But he gently shut the door anyway.

Now, focus. Kenny had the antenna set in a precise southerly alignment for a test transmission. They were trying for a clear signal in a minimum number of hops to the US airbases in Brazil. Mike sat next to Kenny and put on his own headset. They waited.

The test transmission came--fifteen minutes straight of furiously scrawling dots and dashes. When the test was done, they cross-compared their scrawls. Amazingly, they agreed--the transmission was unambiguous at their end. Mike took off his headset and slapped Kenny on the back. “Good work, kid. We’ll send this back tomorrow, but sounds like this hunk of scrap is doing the job. Let’s celebrate.”

Mike pulled out a flask of whiskey and handed it to Kenny. “One Mick to another, right kid?”

Kenny took a sip. It burned, but he didn’t cough. “Thanks.” Turned out they were the only two Irish in the their section, though Mike was black Irish and Kenny was a fair red head. At twenty-five, Mike was also the youngest employee there besides Kenny. A swell guy.

“Christ, with the blackout, you can really see the stars.” Mike pointed. “There’s scientifiction heaven, Mars. He must be happy with us now.”

When Kenny had first built his antenna, he would aim it every now and then at Mars. Even if the Martians didn’t want to visit this world at war, they might be broadcasting Martian news and music. Maybe from up there they could tell where Mom was. But that had just been playing scientifiction.

Mike called him back from space. “So, what else can you pick up on this thing?”

Kenny grabbed his headphones again. His favorite game was to find the farthest radio station signal he could. “Maybe we can hear Brazil ourselves.”

Mike adjusted the antenna slightly to the southeast, at an altitude not far above the horizon. “Anything?”

“Not sure.” Something was crackling, but Kenny was having trouble tuning the frequency to the sweet spot. “Check the coil, would ya?” Kenny lightly jiggled the frequency. There, maybe...

Screech! Spikes jabbed into both of Kenny’s ears. “Shit!” His own damned fault for not paying attention--Mike had opened up the receiver unit and slid the frequency to the coil’s far end for a better look.

Mike laughed, roaring, “Take off the phones, Einstein.”

Wait. A noise, so faint that Kenny wondered if it were just the echo in his brain of the test transmission. Only the beeps weren’t Morse. They were faster. Real fast. No operator could have written this down.

“Kid?”

Kenny signaled with his open palm to keep it quiet. “What frequency?” he whispered.

“Frequency? I don’t know, kid, must be like a thousand.” 1,000 MHz. Ridiculous, nobody used that range. But there it was.

Kenny felt his heart beating harder, and he tried to calm down so the rush in his ears wouldn’t interfere with the signal. A freight train rumbled below; he blocked it out. The signal grew in intensity for a while, and then it faded.

Kenny checked the antenna. Still steady, south by south easterly, towards a nondescript patch of sky with few stars that he could see. Was the source moving? Mike had his pencil and paper ready again. “Get this alignment.”

“Sure, kid.” Mike noted the precise degrees and minutes. Kenny checked his watch. It was 1:00 a.m. September 15th. Hello.

Kenny took off the phones and sat down hard on the roof, letting his breath finally catch up with his excitement, trying to keep the sound-fury in his brain from erupting in front of Mike.

“What the hell was that, kid? Germans? Japs? What?”

Kenny closed his eyes, remembering the signal. “Radio from the stars. Star people.”

“Gosh and fuck all. If you’re shitting me...”

Kenny shook his head like a punch-drunk boxer.

“OK, you’re not shitting me. Are you sure? Remember how that War of the Worlds show fooled people.”

Kenny remembered. He had known what was going on, and was fooled anyway.

“Are you sure, kid?”

“No. Not sure.” This was beyond anything Kenny had ever heard of. “But we can check it tomorrow. We’ll listen again at the same altitude and, whatchacallit, azimuth, at around the same time.”

Mike nodded. “OK, I get you. We’ll start a few minutes earlier. If it’s space men, we’ll get the same thing at an earlier time. Then what?”

“We need recording equipment,” said Kenny. “The good stuff.”

“Check. And?”

“Then we got to chase the signal across the sky.”

“Kid, you’ve made this salad bowl to stand at attention, not march. But we’ll manage. They’ve got special motors and shit for telescopes to follow the sky evenly. And we’ll need a telescope too.” Michael took a swig from the flask and wiped his mouth. “Still, it might be natural fuzz. Another Bell noise guy--you don’t know him--got radio from the whole galaxy. Just natural fuzz.”

“This is different,” said Kenny. “It’s a specific source. And if you could’ve heard it--no, it didn’t sound natural at all.” Scientifiction becoming scientifact. “We’ve got to tell people.”

“Whoa, hold on,” said Mike. “People already had enough to worry about with Nazis and Japs. Do you want to cause a panic like Orson Welles?”

Kenny certainly didn’t want that. No need to replay the night his Mom left. No need to even think about that.

“Don’t worry kid, I’ll handle who we tell. Not Carleton, that’s for sure.”

“Maybe, maybe we shouldn’t tell anyone.” Kenny already had the job he wanted--playing with radios and listening for money. This might be too loud for him.

“Yeah,” Mike said, “this might turn into big job, and I’d rather be chasing skirts.”

A false cadence to this, but most lies didn’t matter. Kenny stared at the stars again--so many to listen to. His Mom might be staring at them too. “Mother” he murmured at the sky.

Mike heard him. “Mother? What happened to your mother, kid?”

“Nothing. The Martians got her.”

“Right. Look, what if Hitler talks to these green men first? Nazi heat rays? We’ve got to figure this out before they do.”

Hitler talking shit to the space men. Not good.

Some stupid fucking sailors were yelling on the street, long after curfew. Kenny imagined them on deck and looking smart in their uniforms as a heat ray sizzled into their ship, and knew that Mike was right.

*****

Tuesday, January 19, 1943

Kenny sat waiting with Mike in their shared office. Kenny’s new title was Assistant Noise Manager, which sounded like he was still part of the noise reduction effort. The confusion was helpful, and nobody at the secrecy-minded Labs questioned his job.

The soldiers and sailors didn’t try to drag Kenny off to enlist anymore. His Bell Labs ID specifically noted that he was vital to the war effort. The soldiers or sailors would give him a grudging nod. “Killing Nazis?”

“You bet.”

“Good. Get us home sooner.”

But Kenny’s discovery wasn’t killing Nazis, and its harmlessness embarrassed the top brass at the Labs and in Washington. The discovery was obviously important, and it was even more important to keep it quiet. But Uncle Sam couldn’t do much about sounding out its meaning--there was a war on, after all. So Mike and Kenny had gotten the job. And they had asked for some outside help, from somebody who knew codes and machines.

An accented voice approached their office. Showtime. Kenny opened the door after the first tap on it. Mr. Carleton stood with a dark-haired man older than Mike, but not much. Carleton introduced them. “Kenneth O’Reilly and Michael O’Neill, this is Dr. Alan Turing.”

“Puh puh pleased to meet you,” Turing stammered out.

“Dr. Turing has just arrived in New York, boys, and we’re all very happy the U-boats didn’t get him. He’s already been worked pretty hard today, so take it easy on him.” Translation--he’s too important for the McBrat and Mick, as Kenny had heard the men calling him and Mike through his bugs.

Carleton left and Kenny said, “Please have a seat, Dr. Turing.”

“Alan.”

“What’s that, sir?”

“Please call me Alan, Kenneth. And Michael, is it?”

Kenny was about to correct him, but he realized he liked this older guy’s tone when he said Kenneth. “OK, Alan.”

“Why have they sent me here?” Turing asked, his words fixing Kenneth like a pinned insect. Other than the accent, this guy was nothing like the Brits in the movies. No waste of words, no jive. Weird.

“We asked for you,” Kenneth replied, reverting to his natural voice. “We’ve got an, uh, out of this world problem.” God, he sounded like such a kid.

Mike clicked on the recording of the transmission. Suddenly, Turing was all ears. “Where did this come from?”

“Near as we can figure, the star Epsilon Eridani,” Kenneth answered.

Mike changed to another recording. The beeps were slower, recognizable and Morse-like. The pattern grew more complex as the recording continued, then cycled back to a simple beep beep.

“This is the same signal,” Mike said, “with a narrow band isolated.”

Kenneth spoke over the signal, riffing with it. “It’s the easiest one to hear what’s going on. The other parts are going really fast--too fast for anybody to distinguish even played at a reasonably slow speed.”

“And what do you think this is?” Alan was a teacher calling him towards the blackboard.

“Here’s the thing,” said Kenneth. “We’re pretty sure this isn’t like a person on the phone or radio, you know, something that you modulate the amplitude or frequency of to recreate the vibrations that went into a transmitter somewhere. That means we can’t just build the right speaker and talk directly to the LGM.”

“LGM?”

“Sorry, little green men. No, the signal’s more like Morse--it’s a language in itself, all in beeps and blanks. But that means for us, it’s like a code.”

“Right. But you have excellent cryptanalysts right here.”

“For people languages. I don’t think it’s that kind of language--at least not the fast part.”

Alan nodded at Kenneth, who sensed that he had passed the exam. “Yes, a language by machines for machines. So, you want to be able to talk to them?”

“No,” Kenneth said, too quickly. “But it would be nice to know what they’re saying.”

“Right then. We should have some time to work on this. They have marooned me here for two months. I’m staying in a hotel in Greenwich Village. Is the Village a friendly place?”

Kenneth heard other questions, other codes, buried in this, but didn’t know how to respond. “Sure. New York’s a friendly town, once you get to know it.” Mike busied himself with the recording equipment.

When Turing was safely gone, Mike burst out laughing. “God, what an oddball. When he asked about the Village, I thought I was going to choke. And the way he was looking at you. Better watch out.”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know?” Mike shook his head. “Kid, you don’t want to know.”

“Come on, Mike. If he doesn’t sound right...”

“I’m sure he’s reliable. This man has Winny and Roosevelt’s trust. Don’t think about it, kid. Let’s call it a night.”

But Kenneth’s ears were buzzing. Good thing he had checked on Turing’s accommodations. Turing’s room was wired for sound.

*****

That Saturday night, Kenneth heard Turing come back from a night on the town. With him was another man, a fellow Brit by the sound of him. Good, he wouldn’t want to use this equipment just to hear Turing’s love life.

But then it got weird. Few words, but questions and invitations. “What’s your name?” Turing asked.

And the other man whispered, “What do you want it to be?”

“Kenneth.”

God, his name. Was that kissing smacks? “Can anyone hear?” Turing asked.

“Everyone can hear. No one minds.”

Then grunting, and the rapid arrhythmia of the bed, quick pause quick, different than Dad’s boozy women. And the sounds built up, not just in his mind but his whole body, reaching, reaching. “Kenneth! Kenneth!” Gong! The chord rang long and spasmodically from the center of his body to his head and toes.

He had never felt anything like it--listening to his Dad or finding the signal couldn’t compare. But it was over so quick.

Shame might have filled the silence, but then it started again. Oh god, again. His true music.

*****

Tuesday, March 23, 1943

Kenneth left the Labs early. The rapid-fire percussion of the signal’s main bandwidth was constantly in his head, drowning out the putters of barely fueled cars. He could almost hear the key that the signal was in, and imagined big fat chords coming in midway through. F! CB♭! F! CB♭! It didn’t swing, but you could march to it. Going home tonight was like a march.

A ship’s horn, the sound of relief. Turing was finally leaving New York on the Empress of Scotland. He carried their recordings of the signal in order to continue the work in England. They had made some progress on the molto lento signal--it began as a simple mathematical progression followed by certain physical constants. But they were no closer on the denser parts of the slow signal or any of the faster signals in the polyphonic whole. Turing was going to experiment with specially designed versions of the British code-breaking computing machines.

Kenneth would miss Alan, would miss the listening, but he was relieved to have him gone. Alan almost seemed aware of Kenneth’s listening, and acted like everyone else knew about it too. People talked--Kenneth heard them. They didn’t understand. He didn’t want to touch anyone, especially not guys. He just wanted to listen. Guy noises harmonized better for him, but girl noises could be interesting too.

Still, he would have to start making time for (and with) some girls. Mike could help him. Mike never had any problem finding girls. Maybe he could listen to Mike.

On his way home, Kenneth saw a new Shadow book for sale, but didn’t buy it. These days, the Shadow (like everyone else) fought the Nazis instead of crime. That got monotonous. Mike had lent him some of his comics and magazines like Amazing Stories. Science fiction stories spoke to him more than Nazis or crime.

The house in Queens was a well-painted two stories with a yard of grass but no garden. From the street, Kenneth saw the window of his room, and the room next to it that Dad had insisted on setting aside for his women guests--empty for now. They had painted it pink and decorated it suitably feminine. From his room, Kenneth could listen to Dad’s women doing women’s things.

Sometimes when Kenneth felt tired and sad he would sit alone in the guestroom. The few possessions his mother had left behind were there. He thought the silence sounded like her.

When Kenneth stepped in the house, one of his radios was blaring Miller’s band--they played to fly boys now. Dad was in the kitchen fiddling with the plumbing under the sink again. “Hey, boy, how was your day?”

“Fine. Need a hand?”

“No, I got it.” Clang! “Shit. No, I’m fine. Kill a lot of Nazis today?” Just like the sailors.

“Oh yeah,” said Kenneth, “the bastards didn’t know what hit them.”

Growling commenced, punctuated with clangs and bangs.

“Dad, I need to talk to you.”

“You need money?” That was a laugh. Kenneth’s money had all but bought this house for his Dad.

“No, Dad. I think it’s time I moved out.”

A thud under the sink. His father reached a closed fist out and opened it. In it was one of Kenneth’s listening devices. “You going to take these with you?”

Pure discord. Sudden violence was a word away, but all Kenneth could manage was “What’s that?”

His father chuckled mirthlessly, but stayed under the sink, face hidden from his son. “You think your old man is stupid? You tell me, smart guy.”

“It’s a project from work.”

“It’s goddamn bug, boy. You’ve been listening to me.”

“I listen to everyone. It’s my job.”

“The hell you say.” Dad placed his hands to push out from the sink. Should he hit him now, while he was down? Nothing to hit him with. Keep talking.

“I was listening for Mom.”

Dad let out a sink-muffled sigh. “Did you hear her?”

“No. Did you?”

“Nah.”

“I can hear it in people’s voices when they aren’t telling the whole truth.” He had never dared tell his father this before.

“Are you calling me a liar?”

“No,” Kenneth said, ashamed at the sound of the lie in his own voice. “You just won’t tell me. Has she called here, asking for me?” Silence under the sink. “I thought so. What did you tell her? That I was dead?”

“I told her. I told her that if she called here again, I’d find her and kill her with my bare hands.” True. “That was last Christmas. You satisfied, boy?”

“Yep.” Kenneth shook. He had heard too much, but he wouldn’t sound like a coward. “At least the Martians haven’t gotten her yet.” No response. “So, time for me to move out, I think.”

His father got up from under the sink. He still seemed to tower over Kenneth. “Where will you go?”

“The city. Mike’s got room for a roommate.”

“And what am I supposed to do, while you run off to the city with your sissy friends?”

Dad was just trying to get him off track. “I’ll send money. You’ll be fine here.”

His father grabbed Kenneth suddenly, holding him with one arm and thumping his back with the other. Then, with a smack on Kenneth’s shoulder, Dad let him go. “Get going then.”

“I’ll moo, move out in the morning,” Kenneth stammered out. He turned cautiously towards the stairs; he felt like he might faint.

“Don’t you want to know why I never mentioned your cockroaches before?” asked Dad. Kenneth wanted to flee, but his father’s question held him.

“I thought you didn’t know, sir.”

“You did think your old da was stupid!” His father belly-laughed like Kenneth seldom heard. Then, in one of his mean swings, Dad grabbed him about the shoulders and spoke low into his ear.

“Look ya, I knew you were all ears from the time you was born. And I’ve never been ashamed to say anything just because you’d know. By the time I was your age, my da had found me a whore, his own whore, to show me what’s what. I thought you could learn to be a real man by your mechanical eavesdropping on me. But you haven’t learned goddamn much, have you?”

“No, sir.”

“Didn’t think so.” He pushed Kenneth away. “Get on with you, then. Oh, and you’d better be careful at the Labs.”

Vibrato, Kenneth ran upstairs to his room. He choked down a sob. He could take what Dad had said to Mom. Kenneth would find her after the war, and it would be harmony. He would be old enough, with enough dough--she wouldn’t have to take care of him. He could take care of her. He was a man, no matter what Dad said. But until then he had work to do.

What he couldn’t take, would never take, was that his father had known his secret, for years. That his secret had been ripped from him and whispered back to him. That all his secrets might be turned on him, to humiliate him.

He felt sick, like he was falling. He crawled onto his bed, to calm down and sleep if he could. He couldn’t, too much mental noise, like cackling whores. He got up and found a pen and pad of paper. He wrote to let the noise out, but what came out wasn’t the noise.

When the creatures crash-landed in the desert, the military knew what they had to do. The words poured down in a staccato stream, a science fiction of secrets and lies that went on until the truth was impossible to hear, with a government and a world that was always listening. He wrote molto allegro for hours, then slumped back onto his bed, light still on, pen in hand, paper everywhere.

He could finally let himself sleep. He had work tomorrow, and a place to get the hell out of.

*****

Wednesday June 7, 1944

“That bastard Turing.” The rest of the world was holding its breath on day two of the Allied invasion of France, but Kenneth was still spouting off to Mike about a six-month-old message. The Earth had finally said hello back to the universe, and Kenneth didn’t like it one bit.

Not that it had been a surprise--he had been listening for such a transmission. But no one had even asked his opinion.

Immediately after the Evans Labs had secretly bounced radar off the moon, Turing had sent out a signal from the Hanslope facility towards Epsilon Eridani. His signal was a simple echo of the molto lento portion of the LGM’s message, with an added request for a reply in a specified higher frequency. It was as much as Turing could achieve in a year’s time.

Kenneth had complained to the government higher-ups. Despite Mike’s early, crude efforts to be their Johnny-on-the-spot, the higher-ups talked to Kenneth now. He had their ears, but it was of course too late. They would deal with the Brits and Turing in their own time. In the meantime, well, that’s what he needed to explain to Mike.

Mike. The name was melodious, harmonious. He listened for Mike in secret, but Mike never made interesting noises here in the apartment. As if he knew. Didn’t matter. Just listening to him with no device was usually a joy.

Not tonight though. He was being deliberately deaf to Kenneth. So Kenneth talked louder, pacing their apartment in time with his Turing rant. “His precautions aren’t enough--it’s not safe.”

Mike waved his hand dismissively. “The Germans are done. Japan will follow.”

“Sure, but what about Uncle Joe Stalin? And most importantly, what about the LGM themselves?”

“They’re an awfully long ways away. Look, I’m beat. I’m going to head out for a while.” Solo. Mike wanted to play solo a lot these days.

Kenneth paced between Mike and the door. “It’s going to be another ten years until they hear from us, and then another ten-and-a-half years till we hear back from them. In the meantime, more and more people are going to get wind of this. We have to think very long term.”

“We can keep this quiet, kid. You can count on me.”

“It’s not enough to keep it quiet.”

“What’s that suppose to mean?” asked Mike.

“For instance, the last couple years, I’ve been hearing about atomic energy. It’s in all the science fiction magazines. Used to be in all the science magazines. Immensely powerful, potentially deadly stuff. But not a peep about it in the papers or from the government. So, something’s being kept quiet. Which means there’s something to keep quiet.”

Mike whistled. “Fine, I get you. So what’s on your mind, long term-wise?”

Kenneth now spoke tranquillo. “Why weren’t the Germans ready for us at Normandy? I mean, we were making enough of a racket.”

“My bet,” Mike said, “is that the Nazis were distracted. We had ‘em believing we would go anywhere else--Calais, southern France, you name it. We had so many distractions they ignored the easiest, most obvious thing.”

“Right.” Kenneth knew this was right. He had been following the radio traffic. “Truth needs a bodyguard of noise.” Like his recent dates with girls, with their annoying voices and their seeing feeling smelling tasting. “There’s something I want to show you.” Kenneth found his opus and handed it to Mike.

“You want me to read this now? OK.” He skimmed it with indifferent quickness. “Wow, pretty heavy stuff, kid. Round spinning rockets from the stars, Martians among us, the government hiding the Martians, and these super G-men in black suits keeping it secret.” He shrugged his shoulders. “You going to write more of this stuff? The grunts will eat it up.”

“This isn’t a science fiction story.”

“Then what is it?” asked Mike.

“It’s a plan.”

“Oh.” Mike translated Kenneth’s meaning instantly. “You want to create a legend, a false story, disinformation like at Normandy. Let the nosy and gullible folks learn just enough to confuse them, then deny everything.”

“And anyone who describes something like what we’ve found will be drowned out by the crazies.”

Mike’s eyes narrowed on Kenneth. “Yeah, you could do that. After the war, of course.”

“That’s swell. I’ve already arranged it with the higher-ups. We’ll be able to keep working together after the war.”

Mike nodded slowly, keeping silent.

*****

Sunday, June 1, 1947

Before VJ day, Kenneth had never been farther west than Jersey. Now, he was with Mike at the White Sands military base in New Mexico. Sunset, and time for his desert story.

For the past two years, they had been itinerant preachers of the new faith, acting as reporters in one city, witnesses in another. Their dark epistles of the real war of the worlds had appeared in the sympathetic Amazing Stories under many names. They had spoken to science fiction clubs and anti-Communist groups. Kenneth was improvisational, like the new jazz, Parker and Gillespie, rapid and complex like the deeper parts of the signal. The less-enthusiastic Mike kept their efforts grounded, serious. They were creating something that was already way beyond them.

And they were staging incidents, of which this was to be neither first nor last.

Kenneth and Mike were dressed in black suits just like the G-men in Kenneth’s story. Mike carried a clipboard and Kenneth had a pipe clenched between his teeth. Mike had suggested that Kenneth take up pipe smoking to look older, and that he dye his hair black to avoid standing out.

They were surrounded by cacophony. Immediately in front of them, lab-coated technicians were jangling together a weather balloon. To their right, some German-speaking technicians were wrapping life-like dummies in silver foil. No shit there.

From behind them, “Dr. Wells?” The bristly voice of the USAF.

Teeth clenched on pipe, Kenneth smile-replied with his usual earnestness. “Yes, Colonel Josephson?”

“Something has been nagging me about your experiment. Don’t you think it looks a bit, um, funny?”

“Funny, Colonel? I assure you, this is a very serious. Our ability to monitor the potential Soviet atomic threat--”

“Yes, doctor, I know all that. But, these dummies, the balloons--they’re like something from the double features. I mean, if a civilian sees this, he’s likely to think the Martians have landed.”

Kenneth couldn’t mute his excitement. “Do you think so, Colonel? Do you really think so?”

Mike was calmer. “I think it would take quite an imagination to see it that way. Don’t worry, Colonel. We’ll handle it.”

Mike and Kenneth walked to the edge of the base together. Kenneth heard the emptiness of the echoless desert. “So much open space. You could put a dozen big radar dishes out here, and nobody would mind.”

Mike turned towards the Pole Star and stared out at the horizon. “It isn’t far from here, you know. The place they tested the bomb. The Russians will get some bombs too, believe it.”

“Yeah, sure. So, what next?”

Mike paraphrased his checklist. “I’ve already got an article for the newspapers, and I’ve been talking with some of the more suggestible types in the area.”

“This is better than the War of the Worlds. With the other incidents we’ll create, we’ll fool even more people without really harming anyone.”

“Yeah, kid, you’ll fool them all.” Mike’s timbre had gone all wrong.

“What’s that suppose to mean?”

Mike shook his head. Which could mean that he knew he couldn’t get away with saying something.

“Mike, what did you mean?”

“It means I want out, kid. Now stop it with the ear voodoo.”

“Why?”

“I’m tired of the cloak-and-dagger. It’s hard to meet nice dames when you can’t tell them what you do.”

Kenneth coughed. He didn’t like hearing about Mike’s lady friends whom he never heard. “You’re drunk.”

Mike took out his flask and threw it into the quiet. “Not a drop.”

Kenneth tried another tack. “This isn’t what I want either. I want to be working on the signal more--we don’t even know what they’ve said yet, much less what they’re going to say in ’64.”

“Kid, when are you going to let them know?”

“Let who know?”

“Everyone. Americans, the Brits, hell, the Russians, too. When are you going to tell them?”

“The Russians, Mike?”

“Yes, the Russians. If mankind’s still here when the LGM call back, will anyone really want a more powerful bomb? And then there’s our own people.”

Kenneth’s replied like a player piano. “We have to prepare them for decades. You’re the one who convinced me. Otherwise, they’d panic. We’ve seen it before.”

Mike shook his head. “And I’ve heard that too often. I was wrong, kid. It’s a new world. People are already changing. Stuff like this” and he pointed back towards the balloons, “is just going to fuck them up.”

“Soon we won’t have to fuck them up.”

“Huh?”

“National Security Act, Mike. Soon we’ll be able to listen in on everybody, everywhere. We’ll know if there’s a leak, and we’ll plug it.” And maybe, on some phone line somewhere, he would overhear his mother. He had listened for her in every town but hadn’t heard her yet. And Aunt Maureen was dead.

“Listen to everybody? Are you listening to yourself?” Mike abruptly grabbed Kenneth by the shirt. “How much have you been spying on me? Does my snoring make you tingly? Huh kid? Huh?” He was snarling in Kenneth’s face.

“I don’t do that.” Technically true--he had stopped out of boredom.

Mike pushed Kenneth away. “Maybe you should use some of that ear voodoo on yourself.” He turned back towards the barracks.

“Don’t quit. The country needs you on this. I can’t do this shit without you.”

“No, kid. You’re the future.” Sarcasm? That wasn’t the dominant note. Fear.

Fear sounded nice. Should he be afraid of what Mike might say? No, the higher-ups would listen to Kenneth, and they were the only ones who mattered.

If Mike didn’t want to riff with him, fine. Kenneth could keep listening to him and even have him silenced if need be. But maybe Mike would stay. There was still so much to hear. Kenneth was only twenty-two. His best years of listening were still ahead of him.

In quiet absolute, a sound--the open sky called him. The music of the spheres, the chimes of midnight, for his ears alone. The signal’s rhythm mixed with the pounding chords of Mike’s words and the anticipation of the reply, seventeen years six months and counting, and the voice of America, all of America, wired for sound, building and building, like a tower unto heaven, God’s new song.

E! The chord struck down on him like baby grand, and slowly faded into the desert silence, coda to this day, this movement in his life.