The Loud Stereo
by Sheila Martin
The song battered Rachel’s head—“Heroin” with its electric viola and cello bow screeching over three guitar strings, so loud she was drowning in it, her aching, throbbing skull crashing against the rocks, Lou Reed’s drugged-out voice singing, “It’s my wife and it’s my life, because a mainer to my vein leads to a center in my head, and then I’m better off than dead …” screeching louder and faster, the pitch of manic intoxication.
Not that she didn’t like the Velvet Underground. What was driving her nuts was the insane volume Morgan had cranked it up to, escalating her migraine. It had come on suddenly—radiating from the center of her head like something was broken in there. Nothing makes you more aware of the moment than pain.
She tried to turn the stereo down, but Morgan, the little shit, wouldn’t let her, yelled that she was uncool, that it was his room and his dope and if he wanted it blasting so he could jerk around right in front of the speakers to get the full impact, he would. She pictured kneeing him in the groin, which made her feel even more shitty.
She looked around. The others didn’t seem to notice how deafening it was, or more likely, they preferred it that way. Che was sitting on his mattress pulling the vinyl banana peel off the Andy Warhol Peel Slowly and See album cover, looking at the pink banana under it, then sticking it back and peeling it off again, over and over. Justine was dancing, throwing her body around with abandon.
Rachel pressed her palms to her temples. She should just get up and go—it was late, a school night—but she was so tired and stoned she felt paralyzed, unable to move.
She heard a knock, was surprised to find herself walking to the door, opening it, and gazing into the angry face of Cal, an engineering student who lived a few doors down. He was saying something. She held up a finger, pulled out plugs of tissue she had stuffed in her ears, and squinted at him.
“Can I come in?” he shouted.
She stepped aside and he charged into the room, fists clenched, head thrust forward, until he came to the turntable. He swiped the arm off the record causing a vinyl-scratching squeal.
The silence was shocking, and such a relief she felt like kissing him.
“What the fuck?” Morgan said. “You ruined my record, man. You’re going to have to pay for it.”
“Look, creep, it’s late.”
Morgan twisted his fingers in his ears and wiggled them.
“We’re trying to sleep!” Cal yelled. “Some of us actually go to class in the morning.”
“So? We have a right to listen to music in our room.”
Che jumped up. “Yeah, man! We have a right!”
Cal tilted his head back and looked down at them like they were little kids.
Without wanting to Rachel saw Morgan through Cal’s eyes and he no longer seemed so cool, more like a self-centered skinny teenager who’d barely lost his virginity. She couldn’t believe how cold she felt toward him. Oh god. If she had no control over her feelings for the guy she was in love with, she might do anything.
“Get out of my room.” Morgan pointed at the door.
“I know what you do in here.” Cal nodded toward Rachel and Justine. “Doping up these girls, taking advantage of them.”
Justine started giggling, then clamped her hand over her mouth.
“You’re lucky no one’s called the narcs on you,” Cal said.
“Is that a threat?” Che said. No one was more paranoid about narcs than Che.
“If you did,” Morgan said, “the whole school would hate you.”
“I wasn’t planning to.” He held up his hands. “But some of the guys—”
“Are you done?” Morgan stepped closer. “Because I’d like you to leave.”
“No, I’m not done.” He started walking around, picking things up, examining them: a mug filled with gunk, a dirty sweatshirt, a roach clip. He curled his lip.
“This room stinks. You’re stinking up the whole floor. Don’t you ever do laundry? Take showers? Jesus.”
The smell intensified, became nauseating. Rachel’s eyes fell on a pile of socks so dirty they were stiff, clumped next to the Coke bottle partition Morgan and Che were building. She’d been tempted to pick up the socks and stick them in Morgan’s face, the way you’d train a puppy.
“Oh, yeah?” Morgan said. “This from the guy who squeezed shit under Arnie’s door?”
“That wasn’t me!” Cal said. “It was probably one of your friends.”
Her migraine spiked. Morgan was always doing this, accusing people, jumping to conclusions.
“You’re lying,” he said, “so the girls won’t know what an asshole you are.”
Cal walked over to the dresser and picked up Morgan’s gun.
“It takes an asshole to leave this out where anyone can see it,” he said. “Don’t you know anything?”
The gun magnified, filling her vision, imbued with power. Bang! The end of everything.
“At least I’m not a trained killer,” Morgan said.
“That’s right. I’m the one who’s actually trained, dickwad.”
Oh. Fucking ROTC.
“I’ve got to go,” she heard herself say. She headed for the closet.
“Me too.” Justine followed her, stumbled, caught herself. “Oh, boy. I’m dizzy.” She tapped her ears. “And my ears are ringing.”
“My head’s exploding,” Rachel said. She wished she could just leave her body here, go home without it—but wait, isn’t that what she did when she time-traveled or hallucinated or whatever the fuck she did?
She and Justine put on their jackets and picked up their bags.
“May I walk you ladies home?” Cal extended his arms, bent at the elbows. “It’s not safe this time of night.”
Rachel pictured the dark empty streets.
“Thanks,” she said.
“You’re not actually going with him, are you?” Morgan’s face was red. “The guy’s an asshole.”
Rachel linked her arm through Cal’s while Justine took the other arm. He smiled, pulled them closer.
“Fuck you,” Morgan said as they headed out. “Fuck all of you.”
Cal’s strong arm felt good, and the fresh air eased Rachel’s headache.
“So, ladies,” he said when they got to the lobby. “How about let’s go upstairs and get naked …” He slid his hand down and grabbed Justine’s ass.
“Hey!” she hollered and jumped away.
“What’s wrong?” he said, all innocent.
“Leave her alone!” Rachel yelled, which made her headache spike again. Morgan was right: Cal was an asshole.
“Make me,” he said.
She looked around. The lobby was empty, except for the white-haired man they’d started calling the Professor. He was sitting in the corner by an amber glass table lamp. Distinguished, refined—that’s how her mother would have described him. He lowered his magazine and looked at them.
“I think you should go,” Justine said to Cal, but her voice quavered.
“Hey, you hippie gals sleep with everyone—free love, right?”
“Creep!” Justine cried.
“Fuck off!” Rachel yelled.
“Oh, a gal with spirit.” Cal came in close. “I like that.”
“Pig.” She shoved him away.
“Get the fuck out!” She pointed at the revolving door, her hand shaking. “Or I’ll call security.” Of which there was none—just the matron, and she wasn’t on duty.
The Professor stood up, tall, straight-backed, like a headmaster on Masterpiece Theatre. He started walking toward them, smacking the rolled-up magazine against his palm.
Cal seemed to shrink, then let out a bark of laughter.
“Never mind. I didn’t really want to fuck you anyway, just wanted to get back at Morgan.”
He turned and walked toward the door, but the Professor intercepted him, took hold of his arm and said something in his ear too low for Rachel to hear.
“Thank you,” she whispered under her breath.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Cal said. “It won’t happen again.” He walked quickly away and out the door.
Before Rachel could thank the Professor, he too had walked out the door.
Sheila Martin was born in Brooklyn, and received her BA from New York University in Fine Art. In addition to her painting, she is the author of the novel The Coney Island Book of the Dead, and is currently seeking an agent for her second novel, The Time Artist, from which this is an excerpt. She can be found online at sheilapmartin.com.