John Tell had been working at Tabori Studios just over a month when he first noticed the sneakers. Tabori Studios was in a building which had once been called Music City but wasn't much anymore.
The sneakers were white, or had been once, when they were new. From the look of them that had been a long time ago. That was all he noticed about them then: just a pair of elderly sneakers under the door of the first stall of the men's room on the third floor. Tell passed them and went into the third and last stall. He came out a few minutes later, washed and dried his hands, combed his hair, and then went back to Studio F, where Paul Janning, the man who had hired him-and just maybe the first friend Tell had ever made-was mixing an album by a heavy metal group called The Dead Beats.
Tell had met Janning, a rock producer of some note, at a party following the premiere of a concert film. They knew some of the same people, and got along. Tell, who normally had problems with ordinary conversation, found he could talk easily and naturally to Paul Janning. Janning asked for his phone number and called him a few days later to ask if he would like to be part of the three-man team mixing The Dead Beats' first album. 'I don't know if it's really possible to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," Janning had said, "but since Atlantic's paying the bills, why not try?"
A week or so after he first saw the sneakers, Tell saw them again. He only registered the fact that they were the same sneakers because they were in the same place: under the door of stall number one in the third floor men's. White-once, anyway-with dirt in the deep creases. He noticed an empty eyelet. Sneakers had laced one of them wrong. Must not have had your eyes all the way open when you did that, friend, Tell thought, and went on down to the third stall (which he thought of, in some vague way, as "his" stall).
This time he glanced at the sneakers on the way out and saw something odd: there was a dead fly on one of them.
When he got back to Studio F, Janning was sitting at the board with his head clutched in his hands.
"You okay, Paul?" Tell asked.
"Me. I was wrong."
"What are you talking about?" Tell looked around for Georgie Ronkler and didn't see him anywhere. It didn't surprise him. Janning had periodic fugues and Georgie always left when he saw one coming on. He claimed his karma didn't allow him to deal with strong emotion. "I cry at supermarket openings," Georgie said.
"You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," Janning said dully. He gestured at the glass between the mixing room and the performance studio. "At least you can't make one out of pigs like those."
"It's not that bad," said Tell, who knew he spoke only the truth: it was worse. The Dead Beats, comprised of four dull bastards and one dull bitch, were personally repulsive and professionally incompetent.
"Fuck you," Janning said.
"God I hate temperament," Tell said.
Janning looked up at him and giggled. A second later they were both laughing.
The mix ended a week later. Tell asked Janning for a recommendation and a tape.
"Okay, but you know you can't play the tape for anyone until the album comes out," Janning said.
"And why you'd ever want to, for anyone, is beyond me. These guys make The Dead Kennedys sound like the Beatles."
"Come on, Paul. At least it's over."
He smiled. "Yeah. There's that. And if I ever work in this business again, I'll give you a call."
"That would be great."
They shook hands. Tell left the building which had once been known as Music City, and the thought of the sneakers under the door of stall number one never crossed his mind.
Janning, who had been in the business twenty years, had once told him that when it came to mixing bop (he never called it rock and roll, only bop), you were either shit or Superman. For the month following the Beats' mixing session, John Tell was shit. He didn't work. He began to get nervous about the rent. Twice he almost called Janning, but something in him thought it would be a mistake.
Then, near the end of May, the music mixer on a film called Karate Masters of Massacre died of a massive coronary and Tell got two weeks' work at the Brill Building (which had once been called Tin Pan Alley), finishing the mix. It was mostly library stuff in the public domain - and a few plinking sitars - but it paid the rent. He had no more than walked into his apartment following his last day on the show when the phone rang and Paul Janning was asking him if he had checked Billboard lately.
Tell said he hadn't.
"It came on at number seventy-nine." Janning managed to sound simultaneously disgusted, amused, and amazed. "With a bullet."
"What did?" But he knew as soon as the question was out of his mouth.
"Diving in the Dirt."
It was the name of a cut on The Dead Beats' Beat It 'Til It's Dead album, the only cut which had seemed to Tell and Janning remotely like single material.
"Agreed, but I think it's gonna go top ten. And that probably means the album'll go top ten. A platinum-covered dog-turd is still a dog-turd, but a ref is still a ref, am I right?"
"You sure are," Tell said, pulling open his desk drawer to make sure his Dead Beats cassette, unplayed since Janning had given it to him on the last day of the mix, was still there.
"So what are you doing?"
"Looking for a job."
"You want to work with me again? Daltrey's new album. Starts in two weeks."
The money would be good, but it was more than that; following The Dead Beats and two weeks of Karate Masters of Massacre, working with Roger Daltrey would be like coming into a warm place on a cold night. The man might turn out to be an utter shit, but at least he could sing. And working with Janning again would be good. "Where?"
"Same old stand. Tabori."
Roger Daltrey could not only sing, he turned out to be a tolerably nice guy. Tell thought the next three or four weeks would be good ones. He had a job, he had a production credit on an album that had popped onto the Billboard charts at number forty-one (and "Diving in the Dirt" was up to number seventeen and still climbing), and he felt safe about the rent for the first time since he had come to New York from Pennsylvania four years ago.
It was June, trees were in full leaf, girls were in short skirts, and the world seemed a fine place to be. Tell felt this way on his first day back at work for Paul Janning until approximately 1:45 P.M. Then he walked into the third floor bathroom, saw the same white sneakers under the door of stall one, and all his good feelings suddenly collapsed.
They are not the same.
They were, though. That single empty eyelet was the clearest point of identification, but everything else about them was also the same. Exactly the same, and that included their positions.
The only difference was that now there were more dead flies around them.
He went slowly into the third stall, "his" stall, lowered his pants, and sat down. He wasn't surprised to find the urge which had brought him there had entirely departed only sat there, listening for sounds. Little shifting noises. The rattle of a newspaper. Perhaps a little grunt of effort. Hell, even a fart would do.
There was no sound.
That's because I'm in here alone, Tell thought. Except, that is, for the dead guy in that first stall.
The outer door banged briskly open. Tell almost screamed.
Someone hummed his way over to the urinals. As he did, an explanation occurred to Tell and he relaxed. It was so simple it was absurd ... and undoubtedly correct. He glanced at his watch and saw it was 1:47.
A regular man is a happy man, his father used to say. Tell's fath
er had been a taciturn man, and that (along with Clean your hands and then clean your plate) had been one of his few aphorisms. If regularity really did mean happiness, then Tell supposed he was a happy man. And if you were regular, he supposed that urge came on at about the same time every day ... at least it did with
him. Sneakers was just on the same schedule, that was all, and the sneakers were always under the door of stall one because that was "his" stall just as number three was Tell's.
If you needed to pass the stalls to get to the urinals, you would have seen that stall empty lots of times, and with different shoes under it lots of other times. And what are the chances a body could stay undiscovered in a business building toilet stall for ...
He worked out the time he'd last been there in his mind.
... for nine weeks, give or take?
No chance at all was the answer to that one. He could believe the janitors weren't too fussy about cleaning the stalls-all those dead flies-but they would have to check on the toilet paper supply every day or two, right) And even if you left those things out, dead people started to smell after a while, right? God knew this wasn't the sweetest-smelling place on earth-and following a visit from the fat guy who worked down the hall at Janus Music it was almost uninhabitable-but surely the stink of a dead body would be different.
How do you know? Did you ever smell a decomposing body?
No, but he was pretty sure he'd know what it was if he did. Logic was logic and regularity was regularity and that was the end of it. The guy was probably a pencilpusher from Janus or a writer for Snappy Kards, at the other side of the floor.
Roses are red and violets are blue!
You thought I was dead but that wasn't true!
I just deliver my mail at the same time as you.
That sucks, Tell thought, and uttered a wild little laugh. The fellow who had banged the door open, almost startling him into a scream, had progressed to the washbasins. Now the splashing-lathering sound of him washing his hands stopped briefly. Tell could imagine him listening, wondering who was laughing behind one of the closed stall doors, wondering if it was a joke, a dirty picture, or if the man was just crazy. There were, after all, crazy people in New York. Lots of them. You saw them all the time, talking to themselves and laughing for no appreciable reason ... the way Tell had just now.
Tell tried to imagine Sneakers also listening and couldn't.
Suddenly he didn't feel like laughing anymore.
Suddenly he just felt like getting out of there.
He didn't want the man at the basin to see him, though. The man would look at him. Just for a moment, but that would be enough to know what he was thinking. People who laughed behind closed toilet stall doors were quite possibly not to be trusted.
Click-clack of shoes on the old porcelain tiles. Whooze of the door being opened and the hisshh of it settling slowly back into place. You could bang it open but the pneumatic elbow-joint kept it from banging shut. That might upset the third-floor receptionist as he sat smoking Camels and reading the latest issue of Krrang!
God, it's so silent in here! Why didn't the guy move?
But there was just the silence, thick and smooth and total, the sort of silence the dead would hear in their coffins if they could still hear, and Tell again became convinced that Sneakers was dead, fuck logic, he was dead and had been dead for who knew how long, he was sitting in there and if you opened the door you would see some slumped mossy thing with its hands dangling in the fork of its crotch, you would see
For a moment he was on the verge of calling, Hey Sneaks! You all right?
But what if Sneakers answered, not in a questioning or irritated voice but in a froggy grinding croak? Wasn't there something about waking the dead? About…
Suddenly Tell was up, up fast, flushing the toilet and buttoning his pants, out of the stall, zipping his fly as he headed for the door, aware that in a few seconds he was going to feel silly but not caring. Yet he could not forbear one glance under the first stall as he passed. Dirty white sneakers. And dead flies.
Weren't any dead flies in my stall. And just how is it that nine weeks have gone by and he still hasn't noticed that he missed one of the eyelets? Or does he just wear them all the time, even to bed?
Pneumatic elbow or not, Tell hit the door Pretty hard coming out. The receptionist, a Camel smoldering between his fingers, was looking at him with the cool curiosity he saved for beings merely mortal (as opposed to such deities in human form as Roger Daltrey).
Tell hurried down the hall to Tabori Studios.
"What?" Janning answered without looking up from the board. Georgie Ronkler was standing off to one side, watching Janning closely and nibbling a cuticle - cuticles were all he had left to nibble; his fingernails simply did not exist above the point where they parted company with live flesh and hot nerve-endings. He was close to the door. If Janning began to rant, Georgie would slip through it.
"I think there might be something wrong in-"
Janning groaned. "Something else?"
"What do you mean?"
"This drum track is what I mean. It's badly botched, and I don't know what we can do about it." He flicked a toggle and drums crashed into the studio. "You hear it?"
"The snare, you mean?"
"Of course I mean the snare! It stands out a mile from the rest of the percussion, but it's married to it!"
"Jesus bloody fuck, I hate shit like this! Forty tracks I got here, forty goddamn tracks to record a simple bop tune and some IDIOT technician-"
From the tail of his eye Tell saw Georgie disappear like a cool breeze.
"'But look, Paul, if you lower the eq-"
"The eq's got nothing to do with-"
"Shut up and just listen for a minute," Tell said soothingly - something he could have said to no one else on the face of the earth-and slid a switch. Janning stopped ranting and started listening. He asked a question. Tell answered it. Then he asked one Tell couldn't answer, but Janning was able to answer it himself, and all of a sudden they were looking at a whole new spectrum of possibilities for a song called "Answer to You, Answer to Me.
After a while, sensing that the storm had passed, Georgie Ronkler crept back in.
And Tell forgot what he had meant to say about the sneakers.
He thought about them again the following evening. He was at home, sitting on the toilet in his own bathroom, reading Everything That Rises Must Converge while Vivaldi played mildly from the bedroom speakers (although Tell now mixed rock and roll for a living, he only owned four or five rock records, most of them by Creedence Clearwater Revival).
He looked up from his book, somewhat startled. A question of cosmic ludicrousness had suddenly occurred to him: How long has it been since you took a crap in the evening, John?
He didn't know, but he thought he might be taking them then quite a bit more frequently in the future. At least one of his habits had changed, it seemed.
Sitting in the living room fifteen minutes later, his book forgotten in his lap, something else occurred to him: he hadn't used the third floor rest room once that day. They had gone across the street for coffee at ten, and he had taken a whizz in the men's room of The Donut Shop while Paul and Georgie sat at the counter, drinking coffee and talking about overdubs. Then, on his lunch hour, he had made a pit-stop at the Brew 'n Burger ... and another on the first floor late that afternoon when he had gone down to drop off a bunch of mail that he could just as easily stuffed into the mailslot by the elevators.
Avoiding the third-floor men's? Was that what he'd been doing today, without even realizing it? You bet your sweatsocks. Avoiding it like a scared kid who goes a block out of his way coming home from school so he won't have to go past the local haunted house. He had been spooked by a pair of dirty sneakers.
Aloud, very clearly, Tell said: "This has got to stop."
But that was Thursday night and something happened on Friday night that chan
ged everything. That was when the door closed between him and Paul Janning.
Tell was a shy man and didn't make friends easily. In high school a quirk of fate had put him up on stage with a guitar in his hands-the last place he ever expected to be. The bassist of a group called The Satin Saturns fell ill with salmonella the day before a well-paying gig. The lead guitarist, who was also in the school band, knew John Tell could play both bass and rhythm. This lead guitarist was big and violent. John Tell was small and breakable. Offered a choice between playing the ill bassist's instrument and having it rammed up his ass to the fifth fret went a long way toward breaking down his horror of playing in front of a large audience.
But by the end of the third song, he was no longer frightened. By the end of the first set he knew he was home. Years after that first gig, Tell heard a story about Bill Wynian, bassist of The Rolling Stones. According to the story, Wyman actually fell asleep during a performance - not in some tiny club, mind you, but a huge hall-and fell from the stage, breaking his collarbone. Tell supposed lots of people either laughed at that story or assumed Wyman had been on something, but Tell guessed it was true. Bassists, he had discovered, are the invisible men of the rock world. There were exceptions - Paul McCartney, for one - but they only proved the rule.
Perhaps because of the job's very lack of glamor, there was a chronic shortage of bass players. When The Satin Saturns broke up a month later (the lead guitarist and the rhythm guitarist had had a fist-fight), Tell joined a band formed by the Saturns' rhythm man (at their first rehearsal he still had a large purple shiner), and his life's course was chosen, as simply and quietly as that.
Playing in the band, not just at the party but making the party happen-Tell liked that. You were up in front, admired, idolized almost, and yet invisible. Sometimes you had to sing a little back-up, but nobody expected you to make a speech or anything. He lived that life, parttime student and full-time band gypsy, for ten years or so. He drifted into session work in New York, began fooling with the boards, and eventually discovered he was a little better-and even more invisible-on the other side of the glass window. During all that time he had made one good friend: Paul Janning. Nor was Georgie Ronkler so different from him, he realized following what happened on that Friday night.