In my two Frank Nagler stories, “The Swamps of Jersey,” and the upcoming “A Game Called Dead,” the condition of the city of Ironton, N.J. is as much a character as a setting.
The city, a former industrial center, had fallen on hard times and in “Swamps” a hurricane adds to the misery.
In “A Game Called Dead” the city’s resident start to fight back and demand action to restore the city.
That progression in the stories is expressed through the use of descriptions of sound, or the lack of sound.
This is a scene from early in “Swamps:”
“But it was the silence that got to Nagler. … A city needed shoppers to make a town center noisy, teen-agers and loud music; cabs and large trucks blocking the intersections and drivers honking their horns and yelling at each other in Spanish or Chinese while they shook their fists at one another while some Irish cop yelled back and pointed to get them back in their cars and move along.
Ironton had never been silent; it had rattled with the power of life being created daily as the shops opened, the trains grumbled by, and within its narrow canyons of brick and stone buildings, thousands of footsteps tapped, slapped, pounced and jumped along the city’s sidewalks, the sound of a thousand nails being cut from bar iron replaced by the tapping of modern life.”
In “A Game Called Dead, the image and the silence prevails, at first:
“A slight breeze pushed a skittering soda can across the broken asphalt, sometimes rolling, sometimes end-over-end, spun by a random rock or crack, the tinny echo the only sound in the vacant, hollow space, the useless song of decay and loss and emptiness; the song, he decided, of ourselves. Of me.”
To signify that something had changed, I imagined a make-shift drum line played by city youth who had made their instruments from scraps. I wanted the reader to feel the sound as they read the passages:
“When he arrived at the center, he found the source: A line of twenty or so kids with sticks and mallets and sometimes just their hands playing not formal instruments, but industrial metal drums turned upside down, plastic cans and buckets, window frames lined with tin, make-shift washboards, Mason jars filled with marbles or tiny rocks – anything, everything that could make a sound.
Nagler parked his car, got out to lean backwards on the hood, smiled and watched in wonder.
Thump, thump, thump-a-thump. Then, tap, and tap, taptaptap; then thump-a-thump, then crash-crash; thump-a-thump, then crash-crash. Notes between notes, sounds between silence, then a flurry, uncountable birds rising from tall grass, a thousand wings, chaotic flapping. Then the tempo shifting faster; so many hands and sticks, the sound in layers, colliding, then rising, engulfing the air, swooping in and out, the source obscured – one, maybe all – then in a moment the syncopation lost, the notes combined, one atop the other, rising, rising, louder as if passing through a pipe, sound with a single reason to be, pausing, then bursting out the end and shattering into a thousand single notes and beats and sounds, breaking, exploding, sprinkling back to earth to be gathered again by busy hands, shaped into something new and sent skyward one more time; then a voice, a single “Oh, oh.” Then another, “Oooo, ooo!” Three, in harmony. “Oh, Oh-oh, hey!” Oh, Oh-oh, hey. Thumpa, thumpa. Then Hey, then Oh; then Hey-ho. Then five voices singing Hey, and five others, Ho; then underneath a rising “Ah,” stepping up the scale, each Ah higher and louder, till twenty voices found a note and wordless, carried it on; just sound, harmony wrapped in harmony, song wrapped in rhythm, voices grabbing music from hard streets, moving, moving forward, pure sound, celebrating itself, celebrating life; joy.”
A Game Called Dead ends with the police action taking place in the middle of a large and noisy street rally, at the center of which is again the drum line:
“Rafe on lead called out the time and the metal drums rattled to life sending the crisp marching orders bouncing off the brick facades, tickling the windows, blowing past doubts and worries, stepping out in the lead, a clarion call that said, Come down, set aside your troubles, there ain’t nothin’ we can’t fix together.
Come they did. The lawn and streets at the center had been filled two hours before the march was supposed to start. When the drums began it was like invisible hands had opened front doors, grabbed folks by the collar of their clothes, lifted them from the breakfast table or from in front of the television and hauled them into the street where their feet started tapping and their faces smiling.
RatatatRUMBLERUMBLEratatatROLLROLLROLL. Then syncopation. One foot, one foot, two feet, one foot. Then a sound like the sky cracking as the drum line started a continuous roll from the deepest, baddest bass drums to the high-toned make-shift tambourines, a window-rattling, wall-shaking, calling down God Almighty thunderous extravaganza that would not be denied; a sound that gave you no choice but to heed its message, a sound that chased you down, found your soul and said It … Is …Time.”
“The Swamps of Jersey” was published by Imzadi Publishing LLC on Nov. 1.
Also available at Barnes and Noble stores through their website and online at http://www.barnesandnoble.com