Learning to Play the Silence
I was gigging in a band where I played the silence. The silence is an antiquated, forgotten instrument, like the rauschpfeife or dolceola. But it was crucial for our sound, since we mostly played gigs like your boyfriend’s breaking up with you or you awake to a crash but it might have been a dream.
I was taught how to play the silence by Johnny “Cowlegs” Jackson. He made a telephone of his thumb and pinky, held it to his ear, and motioned I should do the same. Hello. This is Cowlegs. There was a terrible accident. Your grandmother just died. I began to speak, but he touched the index finger of his other hand to my lips. But wait—your mother also died. I blinked. Twice. Three times. But wait—your son also died. I stopped blinking. But wait—, he said, and began walking away, not putting his receiver down, not even when he walked out the door, around a corner, out of sight.
“You only need three things to be a door-to-door surgeon,” said my Uncle Sal. “Some ether, a knife, and moxie, and in a pinch I can do without the first two.” I was thirteen and his assistant as we scuttled about the Midwest. He’d knock, explaining there’d been a bout of quacking dropsy in the area. Or Indian fever. Or the wallops. The resident thus concerned, he’d ask: Have you felt a little hot? A little cold? Do you have trouble falling asleep? Slow to wake up? Unexplained aches? Why, yes—how did you know.
He didn’t do surgery, of course. Once the patient was cloaked by ether, he’d draw the knife across an arm or leg (visibility was important) barely enough to break the skin, then poke and prod like hell to produce an impressive contusion. An hour, a day later, how much better the patient felt! Entire households rid of foxen humors! Whole towns cured of hatworms or airy eyeballs! What a miracle worker, a saint, a saint.
It was the edge of autumn when the larceny started eating at him, the time when clouds turn anvil-gray and stay there. “Boy…boy…come here,” he called weakly from his room in a Moline boarding house. I opened the door, and there he stood, nearly nude. “Boy…I’ve got the coxswain’s vapors…I need…a cure,” he said. He gestured to his knife on the bureau, held an ethered rag to his face, and collapsed.
I ran. I ran from the last time I would see Uncle Sal. And now it’s more than a century later and I’m in med school, hacking away at a cadaver, unable to cure anything: not vitrosis, not liver knocks, and not my loneliness.
B.J. Best is the author of three books, most recently But Our Princess Is in Another Castle (Rose Metal Press, 2013), a collection of prose poems inspired by classic video games. I got off the train at Ash Lake, a verse novella, is forthcoming from sunnyoutside in 2015. He lives in Wisconsin.