by Catherine Tung
Growing up, Ellie had been the meek minister’s daughter of Reverend Wei. She was half Chinese, wholly pious, distressingly quiet. Ready for something new. When she moved to New York for music school, her bags stuffed with sheet music and bass strings, she was determined to make noise—or, at least, to become associated with noisy people. She’d read about Mona Mackenzie long before they met. Mona had been interviewed in a zine called THE MAKE-UP, where she talked about being a punk drummer. Even in print, Mona was charismatic: her words crackled with energy. For weeks Ellie saw Mona’s words printed out in multiples. I don’t believe in being quiet I drum all the time I don’t believe in being quiet I drum all the time I don’t believe in being quiet I drum all the time Even when I’m at work I use my bare hands on the counter Even when I’m at work My favorite rhythm is the paradiddle. TAP-tap-TAP-TAP-tap-TAP-tap-tap My favorite rhythm is the paradiddle. TAP-tap-TAP-TAP
Ellie saw Mona at one of the basement shows near campus. She walked right up to her, asked about the paradiddle. Mona was beer-drunk and loose-limbed behind the drum kit—happy to talk.
“It’s just left-right-left-left.” She rapped on her snare drum. Her red hair glinted around her shoulders, catching the tiny bits of light that lingered in the dim crowded basement. Her hands moved deftly, drawing out sound from the very bottom of the drum. People swirled all around them, drunk and noisy and happy. Mona’s beat seemed to set the rhythm of the room.
“Then right-left-right-right,” she continued. “Again and again. You can do it in your sleep.”
They talked about music. Ellie hummed every bassline she knew while Mona tapped along on her snare. She told Mona how she loved bass because it rumbled like a subway train. Later, Ellie introduced Mona to the only thing of value that she had: her best friend Jeremy Liu. Ellie and Jeremy had grown up together. Both were half-Chinese, both were raised in the church, and both were in New York for college. Jem was undeniably the cooler of the two. His looks were more exotic than Ellie’s, his features a teasing blend of light and dark where Ellie was simply dark. He was an army brat, and liked to wear military-issue clothes to shows and parties. He kept himself fashionably thin and always had a bored expression on his face. He refused to chase Mona when he met her, and so Mona could do nothing other than chase him. When the two came together, Jem just shrugged and smiled out the side of his mouth. “It was easier to say yes than to say no,” he told Ellie, as his smile began to take over his face.
It was what Ellie wanted, and yet it wasn’t what Ellie wanted. When she found that her best friend was dating the cutest, hottest lady in town; when the three of them moved into a shoestring apartment beneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and christened it the Percolator; when Mona became a part of her mornings, her evenings, her rent checks and her refrigerator space; when Mona lost her charisma, and began to blend into the everyday; Ellie felt that she had given up her best friend for the association of a girl who was better on paper than in real life. Mona’s paradiddles echoed maddeningly through the days. Her hands brought rhythm out from every surface: from the kitchen counters as she cooked, from the coffee table as they ate, from the thin hallway as she wandered the apartment after dinner. And sometimes, at night, Ellie swore she could hear the paradiddle against the pockmarked wall between the two bedrooms.
Mona still does it. She does it even when she’s strung out, nodding off, in a state of almost-sleep. She’s doing it now as she sits at the kitchen table next to Jem, as Ellie faces them both like an interrogator. Mona’s hands go like rabbit’s feet against the tabletop, driven by habit even as the rest of her stays limp.
Jem is more alert. He sits straight, and for a moment Ellie sees him the way he was as a little boy, earnestly imitating his father’s army posture. The two friends look up and down, side to side—at the floor, at the ceiling, at the walls—anywhere but at the disposable syringes on the table. Ellie had put them there for Jem to see. When she’d come home that day, she’d gone looking for a record he’d borrowed, had gone into the room that he and Mona shared, had pulled their dresser away from the wall. The syringes, dozens of them, had been stuffed there. They came pouring down like water.
Jem says, hesitantly, “We were going to tell you.”
“Right.” Ellie’s voice hits the air like a gunshot before a race—and then the conversation is off:
“I wouldn’t lie.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Well I’m telling you the truth—”
“It’s so stupid.” Ellie’s voice goes soft. “Why are you doing this?”
“It’s just every once in a while. Almost never.” Jem leans back, puts a hand on Mona’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about us.”
He won’t answer her question because the answer is nodding off right next to him. Ellie’s voice is low. “This doesn’t look like every once in a while to me.”
“We almost never do it. Like I said.”
Ellie lets out her breath. “You look terrible.”
And Mona’s hands go TAP-tap-TAP in the silence.
Jem covers Mona’s hands with his until she goes still. Their arms stay twined together. Jem’s face is taking on Mona’s drowsy expression, his eyes and mouth going soft in the corners, and Ellie can hardly tell the two of them apart. Once, when Ellie and Jem were kids, they stood before her mother’s full-length mirror, compared their features, glibly overlooked the differences, and declared themselves twins. Ellie’s lost something here, alone on this side of the table. The longer she sits, the more she’ll be admitting her defeat. Ellie forces herself to her feet.
There’s something else. Jem’s father, the old army lieutenant, called her yesterday. Your parents don’t want you to know. His voice was clipped, his words marched out like soldiers. But the church has finally gone insolvent. Your father will be dissolving the congregation and putting the building up for sale. The secret is nesting in Ellie’s mind like a rotten egg, threatening to crack open at any moment. She wants to hurl it out at Jem, make him feel sorry for her, make him ask if she’s okay. But she doesn’t know this new Jem, this Jem who has secrets of his own, who tells paper-thin lies and doesn’t even care when she sees through them. And so she turns away from him, puts one foot in front of the other until she reaches her room, the corner of the house where no one else can go.
Ellie’s shift at the after-school program doesn’t start until 2pm. The schedule allows for morning jams and late nights out seeing bands—it is a music student’s dream job. The pay is terrible, but Ellie doesn’t spend much. She likes having her mornings free; and now, with Jem and Mona holed up in their room, the apartment is quiet.
She sits on their decimated couch and plucks a lazy twelve tone blues from her bass. She wants to see Toru before she goes to work. She feels certain that he will know what she should do. Toru, Brooklyn’s grizzled punk veteran, is a fifty-year-old Japanese who came here from Tokyo when he was twenty-one. He plays drums like Mona. He played in every grimy club, lived in every squat, worked every menial job, did every drug until he his teeth fell out and he had to get dentures. He’s done everything but learn to speak English; but he understands, and, for Ellie, he has always been her best listener. Always willing to sit on the stoop at shows and smoke cigarettes with her while she talks. But now, today, Ellie wants to listen to him instead.
Getting ready to leave the Percolator is its own ritual. Every little thing in the apartment is broken in some way—the tilted floor, the bathroom sink that won’t run unless she presses both knobs at once, the shower that takes five minutes to give hot water, the mirror that warps her reflection at every spot but one—and it takes a set of memorized steps, like a choreographed dance, to get the shower to run and the water to heat and the mirror to stand at just the right angle. Ellie does it all. She closes her eyes for a moment, picturing her fifth-graders—Usha, and Alexander, and little David, who looks just like a ten-year-old Jem. And is just as much trouble.
Just before she leaves, the house phone rings. Ellie knows that no one will get it, that it will ring a dozen times if she leaves the house now, so she strides across the tilted floor to answer.
It’s a man’s voice: older, impatient. “I’m calling for Jeremy,” he says.
Ellie hesitates. His father? The Lieutenant? It couldn’t be.
“I’m calling from QV Photo,” the man says. “He’s late for his shift.”
“Really? He’s late?”
“Coming up on an hour.” Now the man sounds more indifferent than angry. Employees like Jeremy—like Ellie, for that matter—are interchangeable, exchangeable, and, ultimately, expendable. “I need to know if he’s coming in.”
“Yes,” Ellie says firmly. “Yes, he’s coming in.” She hangs up the phone and strides over to Jem’s room. She feels foolish, but if Jem can’t pay rent, then she’s in just as much trouble as him. She raps on the thin wood door, yells through it like a mother—and what was I supposed to tell this manager you need to get up right now—and it’s enough to bring Jem stumbling out of his room and into the hallway. The last thing Ellie sees, before she leaves, is her friend standing in the middle of the kitchen, looking bewildered, as if he has no idea where to begin.
“She is—no good—”
“I know. I know she’s no good.”
“She is—bad roommate—”
“I know. I found out.”
“She is—” Toru takes a drag from his cigarette. He holds the smoke in his lungs for longer than he should. It’s nearly noon. Ellie and Toru are on the stoop of his current residence, 108 Throop. It’s a run-down Bed-Stuy brownstone, home to eight proudly grimy punks and one obliviously grimy dog. Everyone else is inside. Ellie and Toru smoke their cigarettes and drink their beers. Ellie wants Toru to finish his sentences, but this is not a thing that he does. Toru is thoughtful, smart. There must be scores of sentences, good ones, inside his head, but they’re in Japanese, and they never make it into English. It’s hard. What’s more, Ellie didn’t have breakfast, so the beer is going straight to her head. She’s having trouble putting her sentences together. She’s having to do a lot of work.
“What?” she asks Toru. “What about her? I want to know. All her secrets, all the skeletons in her closet. Everything.”
Toru gives a little smile, revealing a flash of his dentures.
“Mona—lived here—” He holds up a single finger. “One year ago.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“She—only stayed—” He keeps the single finger up. “One month.”
Toru adds another finger so that it looks like he’s giving a peace sign. “Two reasons,” he says. “One—” He slaps the inside of his elbow, makes a face like a fiend. Ellie nods.
“I know that one.” She can’t shake the image from her mind: Jem and Mona on their mattress with slitted eyes and bloodless faces, too listless to anything other than sit and watch the chaos grow around them. “I know that one now.”
“Two—” Toru rubs his fingers and thumb together.
“Money,” Ellie whispers. “What about money? What did she do?”
Toru makes a gesture like a baseball umpire, hands cutting horizontal through the air, as if Ellie were a runner sliding into base. Safe! But he means something different.
“None,” he says. “At end of month—she won’t have.”
Ellie nods. This is what she needs to know. “She won’t have?”
Toru nods back. “None.”
Ellie leans back on the stoop and drains the last of her beer. The sun is right above their heads, filtering through all the shadows cast by the brownstones and the trees, sparkling against their beer bottles. When Toru smiles, the sun glints against his dentures. Ellie feels an odd moment of calm.
Toru says, “They make—beans—in kitchen.” He points toward the house with his thumb.
Ellie shakes her head. “I’m not hungry.”
Toru looks at her closely. “More beer?”
“No thanks.” Ellie stands up. “I should stop,” she says. “I need to go soon. I have work.”
“Where?” he says, as if the world begins and ends on this stoop. “Where is work?”
“JacksonHeights.” Ellie suddenly remembers something. When she first began working at the after-school—when she assumed the role of teacher at the front of the room, doling out orders and pencils, scoldings and snacks—she daydreamed about bringing her friends to class. They would be like life experts—guest speakers. Once Jem actually did it—came in and talked to the kids about growing up in the army. He and Ellie sat together on the couch that night, spinning up lists and lists of other things they could do. And today Mister Jeremy will show us how to fix a bicycle using only things found around the house—and today Mister Jeremy will teach you how to develop a photograph, how to woo a drummer, how to dance with guts. How to lay on a mattress all day—how to take a needle to your skin—
Ellie turns to Toru. “Do you want to come along?” She feels like she can’t bear to be alone.
Toru seems unsurprised. “Yes,” he says. He glances down the block. “Which—train?”
Ellie and Toru arrive at the after-school just before two o’clock. They are both newly hung over, having gotten drunk by one in the afternoon and sobered up on the train. Ellie has a headache. She is scolding in herself in her teacher’s voice. She’s astonished to find Toru still with her. But he seems to be at home, in these scrubbed hallways lined with brightly-colored alphabets and crayon drawings. He walks comfortably and, as they approach her classroom, he starts to whistle. She tries to imagine him at the front of the room, between the desks and the ticking clock, starting sentences and not finishing them, occupying the same space as David and Usha and Alexander. She shakes her head. She’s feeling a bit desperate, but she’s not ready to tell Toru to leave. She needs to give him a reason for being here; something for him to do with the class.
“You are—” she says, looking at him, grasping for ideas. He looks back patiently. “You are—” And then it comes to her. “You,” she says, more firmly, “don’t have to say another word.”
She introduces him after the class has finished their homework. The kids have been sneaking glances at Toru ever since he came in. They’ve been nudging each other—making jokes, no doubt, about Miss-Ellie’s-boyfriend. But there are Miss-Ellie’s-boyfriend jokes every day. Ellie doesn’t care. She has a friend in the room. She’s had an hour to nurse her hangover. She stands up at the front of the room and begins.
“This is Mister Toru,” Ellie says. He waves solemnly at the class. The children wave back.
“Who is he?” Usha asks.
“He’s a class visitor He’s going to give us a music lesson today.”
“What kind of music?” Usha is skeptical. “Anything but classical.”
“Anything but rock,” Alexander says.
“Will it be in Spanish?” someone calls.
Ellie waits. “This is going to be drumming.” She mentally crosses her fingers as she says this, hoping the class won’t make too much noise, that Miss Sharon won’t come in and complain. “So it could be any kind of music. It just depends on what you want to do with it.”
The kids sit up straight and look as attentive as Ellie’s ever seen them. Encouraged, she goes on:
“We’ll be sitting on the floor for this activity,” she says. “So—move your desks. Come sit in a circle.”
The kids gather around Ellie and Toru, take their seats on the thin blue carpet. She stands in the middle of the circle with him and looks around. It’s nice, she realizes, to be able to see all the kids’ faces at once. Alexander and Usha loom in front of the room every day. Now she can see all the kids in from the back rows, the ones that never talk and never look up. She can see David.
Toru raises up both hands. Ellie mirrors him. She calls out—“Do as he does—” and the kids lift their hands like a Baptist congregation. They all, in this moment, seem to be holding silence up in the air.
Toru lowers one hand onto the floor. Then the other. He goes slowly, alternating hands in a rhythm that Ellie recognizes as the single stroke. She does the beats along with him. Thum. Thum. Thum. Thum. Slowly, like raindrops, the children join in. The beat pulses under them, firm and steady like a heartbeat. Toru begins to drum faster against the floor. His eyes are closed now; his lips are moving, silently counting the beats between the beats. His hands move in perfect time. THUM-thum-thum-thum THUM-thum-thum-thum. Ellie struggles to keep up, and the children fall behind. Usha and Alexander are doing the wrong beat in exactly the same way, listening to each other instead of to Toru. Most of the other children are beating haphazardly. David is clinging steadily to the old tempo, going much slower than he should. Ellie hits the floor harder.
“Listen!” she calls. The beats rumble cacophonous beneath her. “Listen!” she calls again. She hits the floor so hard that her palms sting. “Listen.” She steers the children toward her rhythm, patiently, persistently, until all of them, even Usha and Alexander, even little David, fall back on time. Toru still has his eyes closed. He smiles when he hears the beats come together. The children are in clean unison; each beat hits against the air with a singular intensity. Ellie is pleased. But then, without a word (when has Toru ever given a word?) Toru changes the beat again. Double stroke: LEFT-left RIGHT-right LEFT-left RIGHT-right. Again, the class falls into disarray, and, again, Ellie calls out to the class, pounds the floor, brings the beats back together, but then Toru changes again. LEFT-right left-left RIGHT-left right-right LEFT-right left-left RIGHT-left right-right. It’s the paradiddle, Mona’s favorite beat. Ellie smiles in rueful recognition even as the class collapses into confusion around her. Some of the kids are struggling valiantly to hold onto the beat, but can only manage the first thump of the pattern. Some of the kids have given up on any sort of rhythm and are simply applauding as fast and as loud as they can. Some of the kids have lapsed into silence. “Come on!” Ellie shouts. She feels a sudden, desperate burst of energy. She claps her hands together. “Say it with me! PAR-a-DID-dle! PAR-a-DID-dle!”
“Par-a-did-dle,” the class calls back thinly, their claps in utter chaos. “Par-a-did-dle.”
“Good!” Ellie cries. She stands up and begins to stomp her feet. Her body shakes with the effort. Her hair flies behind her head. “PAR-a-DID-dle!” STOMP. STOMP. “PAR-a-DID-dle!” STOMP. STOMP.
The children are incensed to see their teacher so incensed. One by one, they stand up and stomp their feet in time. “Par-a-diddle!” they shout. STOMP STOMP STOMP. “Par-a-did-dle!” STOMP STOMP STOMP. The word becomes a rallying cry, a mantra, a chant. The class is stomping and chanting, circling the room, circling Toru, who still sits on the floor, his eyes closed, his legs crossed, anchoring the beat to itself with his own two hands. The children swirl around him, a mass of cartoon shirts and light-up sneakers and half-sized hands and feet. He is the eye at the center of this room-sized hurricane. The beat is moving in waves, cresting at the beginning of each bar: PAR-a-DID-le PAR-a-DID-le PAR-a-DID-le PAR-a-DID-le PAR-a-DID-le PAR-a-DID-le…
Ellie knows they’re making too much noise. That the floor is starting to shake. She knows, even as she continues the cry, that they should slow down, stop. But the sound is too beautiful—the sheer thickness of it, the layers—the stomp over stomp, the clap over clap, the voice over voice. It hits her like a beautiful bracing slap in the face, again and again and again. And then she hears Toru cry out.
Little David is right next to him, still stomping in a tempo all his own, his eyes closed, yelling PAR-a-DID-dle as if his tiny heart could break. Toru is shaking his right hand frantically as though it’s on fire. Ellie rushes over. Toru gives him her hand. It’s been stomped on, hard. His knuckles have already gone purple and swollen. His nails are dark, the blood flooding under the keratin plates, and the whole of his hand is quivering. Ellie’s throat tightens.
“STOP,” she calls out. “Everyone. Stop—stop.” She swallows. “Stop.”
Without Toru’s beat, the class begins to fall apart. It becomes a system that’s lost its gravity; a hurricane without its eye. The kids lose momentum, let space fall between their stomps, let their cries go soft and airy. Usha and Alexander are the first to sit down at their desks, stopping in mid-PAR-a-DID-dle. “This is stupid,” Usha says. She crosses her arms. “This is like baby class.”
The other kids follow. They drift back to their desks, take their seats sheepishly, as if they can’t quite believe the level of catharsis they’d just displayed. But, after all the class has stopped dancing, there is still little David. He keeps up his dance in the middle of the room, stomping in time like a wind-up toy soldier, moving his legs and his arms, moving his mouth, moving his voice. “PAR-a-DID-dle,” he calls, desperately. He can’t seem to stop. “PAR-a-DID-dle. PAR-a-DID-dle. PAR-a-DID-dle. PAR-a-DID—” And Ellie is filled with rage. She grabs him by the shoulders.
“Stop!” she shouts. “David, stop!” She points at Toru. “You did this, didn’t you? You crushed my friend’s hand—” David opens his eyes wide, looks at her, and spits the word in her face.
“PAR-a-DID-dle! PAR-a-DID-dle! PAR-a-DID—”
Ellie strikes him across the cheek. Twice, two single strokes, both with the palm of her hand. Thwack. Thwack. David stops chanting and steps back, stunned.
Toru stands up.
“Ellie—” he says, sounding shocked. For the first time since Ellie’s known him, he makes a complete English sentence. Two. “You must sit down,” he tells her. “You must sit down—now.” He turns to the boy and, with his good hand, strokes his face gently until the red in David’s cheeks begins to fade.
Ellie can’t believe what she’s just done. She can’t turn to face David and Toru. She can’t turn to face the rest of the class. She can hear the whispers among them, whispers growing steadily louder, gaining steam, becoming talk. Talk that will be her undoing. Talk is what she has to do herself, and it’s what she has to do right now—if she has any hope of salvaging her job. She takes one step toward the door. Then another. Then she’s going full speed, out the door, down the hall, toward Miss Sharon’s office. She’s going to hear about this; so she should hear about it from Ellie first.
Miss Sharon’s plump figure is clad, as always, in a sweatshirt—pink with blue ribbons today. Her eyeglasses, too, are framed in blue and pink. All of her outfit matches absurdly well, and yet still she looks disheveled: her hair in her face, her sleeve cuffs stained with pen and pencil and pastel. Ellie watches her from the doorway of the office as she waits to be acknowledged. As she gazes at her boss, she feels that she, Ellie, must look similarly frazzled. She’s sweaty from the paradiddle dancing, flushed from the fight with David. Her hair is frizzed out in an unkempt halo. Miss Sharon never much liked Ellie to begin with. Ellie reaches for her head, smoothes the stray strands down as best she can.
“Yes,” Miss Sharon says, without looking up. She’s going over some form on her desk, signing copies of the same thing over and over again. “Eleanor. Do you need something?”
Ellie breathes out. She lines up her words in her mind, willing herself to say them. “I have to file an incident report.”
“Me—I made an incident.”
Miss Sharon looks up, peers at Ellie critically over her blue-and-pink glasses. She sets her pen onto her desk. “You’re filing a report about yourself.”
“I’ll fill out the form,” Ellie says, her voice strained. “But I wanted to talk to you first. I—I lost my temper with David Paredes today. Just now.”
“What do you mean?” Miss Sharon says. “Lost your temper? He’s so quiet—”
“I know. I know. But he—he crushed my friend’s hand.” And then Ellie has to give that most hated of all things, an explanation: how she brought Toru (a local musician) to lead a drumming lesson (a callisthenic exercise), how the kids got rough and were jumping and stomping across the room like tiny punks (they became over-excited) and how David, quiet little David, let the beat burrow into him like a hookworm, let himself be thrashed around from the inside out until his foot landed on Toru’s bony fingers (a careless misstep of youth), and how Ellie retaliated (an emotional loss of control), and how she is so sorry (I am so sorry), how she is so, so sorry (so, so sorry), sorry for bringing Toru here, sorry for letting David run loose, sorry for letting her own hands escape her.
Ellie blinks and looks up toward the ceiling. It’s the same cheap institutional ceiling as the basement at her father’s church. The flimsy foam panels, the water-stain marks. For the first time in years, she feels ready to pray.
Miss Sharon takes off her blue-and-pink glasses. She surveys Ellie up and down, taking her in as if she’s never seen her before, as if Ellie hadn’t been working at the after-school for the past three years and had only just now come in off the street, her hair wild, her face flushed, her gaze drifting around the room without focus.
“All right,” Miss Sharon says, finally. Her voice is terrifyingly clipped and cool. “I’ll take over your classroom. Go home, Eleanor. I’ll call you in the morning.”
Toru is waiting for her on the front steps of the daycare. He looks smaller than usual, with all ofRoosevelt Avenueswirling around him, and Ellie is startled to realize that she’s never before seen him outside 108 Throop. He is out in the real world. She brought him here. He’s cradling his hand against his chest.
“Let me see,” Ellie says. She picks up his hand carefully, the way she’d do for one of her students. The knuckles have swollen into tiny purple spheres. They are shiny, tender to the touch. Toru winces as she turns his hand over in hers.
“Little kid,” he says. His mouth forms a quivering smile. “Big—foot.”
Ellie nods. “I know.” She looks down the street. The traffic is clustering heartlessly at every intersection. Drivers are waving and honking their way home. Above the street, on the great steel tracks, the 7 train rumbles. “Do you want to go to the emergency room?” Ellie points her thumb west. “It’s just down that way, the hospital.”
Toru shakes his head. Ellie hadn’t expected him to say yes. If his fingers aren’t broken—and, really, even if they are—there’s no point in racking up a hospital bill that she knows, and he knows, will never get paid.
“Let’s get some ice,” she says. “We can get the swelling down while we ride the train.” Toru nods, looking relieved. For the first time all day, Ellie feels like she’s done something right. She can still see little David’s face in front of her, tiny and red, his eyes gone blank with shock. She can’t believe the thing she’s done today. The thing she’s done. The thing—Ellie pushes the thought out of her mind with all her strength. She puts her hand on Toru’s shoulder, and, being careful to wait for the light, crosses Roosevelt Avenue.
Catherine Tung is on the editorial staff at Vintage Anchor. Her writing has appeared on Granta.com and The Rumpus, among other places. She has taught creative writing at Brooklyn College and plays drums in the noise-pop duo Hilly Eye. She lives in Brooklyn.