Beautiful Music

Beautiful Music

by Michael Zadoorian

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617756276
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Pages: 340
Sales rank: 226,943
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Michael Zadoorian is the author of the critically praised The Leisure Seeker —now a film starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland, released by Sony Pictures Classics this year. Zadoorian is a recipient of a Kresge Artist Fellowship in the Literary Arts, the Columbia University Anahid Literary Award, the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, and the Michigan Notable Book Award. His other books are Second Hand: A Novel, and the story collection The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit. His fiction has appeared in the Literary Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, American Short Fiction, Witness, Great Lakes Review, and the North American Review. He lives with his wife in the Detroit area.

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CHAPTER 1

The Hits of '69!

A busy signal. That's all I hear, again and again. It's the fifth time I've called. My index finger starts to get sore around the cuticle from all the dialing. I'm calling CKLW's phone number. Luckily, it's not long distance or I'd be in big trouble with my parents. Though it could be long distance since CKLW is a Canadian radio station and I'm in Detroit, but I don't think it is. Either way, I don't know where I got it in my head to call them, but now that the idea is there, I can't get it out. My mother is in the other room and she hasn't started wondering yet what I've been doing on the phone for so long. She has one of her shows on and it's pretty loud. Lucky for me, but I still keep getting a busy signal. On the ninth try, cuticle red and aching, I finally get through. After three rings, a woman picks up and says, "CKLW request line. Can you hold for a moment?"

Of course I can. I'm thrilled. Over the line, I can hear the disc jockey, Ed Mitchell, announcing the song "In the Year 2525" by Zager & Evans. The song starts. It sounds tinny and staticky through the phone line, nowhere near as good as on my Kor/Sonic transistor radio. After a couple minutes, I start to panic, thinking that the operator has forgotten all about me, but then someone answers. His voice is so low and clear and deep that it seems to exist on a different wavelength altogether. There is nothing tinny or staticky about it. I'm actually speaking to the disc jockey himself.

"Okay! What do you want to hear?" he says, in a growl that sounds so very familiar to me.

I can't speak, having suddenly stumbled into a world where adults care about what I want.

"Hello?"

Is he mad? I don't want DJ Ed Mitchell to be mad. He's going to hang up, so I push out the words as best I can: "Uh, I want to hear 'A Boy Named Sue' by Johnny Cash," I say.

"Okay! Wasn't sure if anyone was there. Now look, I'm going to record your request, then we're gonna play it on the air later. Is that cool?"

I nod.

"So it's cool?"

"Yes," I say, realizing that nodding at the phone is not a good idea. Trying to make up for my mistake, I muster up my energy and yell, "Yeah!"

"All right!" says DJ Ed. He's an adult who likes it when I yell. "That's good. Say it just like that. Just say, Hey, Ed Mitchell. Then tell me your name, your age, and say the song you want to hear. Lots of enthusiasm. Got it?"

"I think so."

"Okay? Are you ready? And ... go!"

I mess it up, of course. I forget to say, Hey, Ed Mitchell. And I forget to say my name too.

"You gotta get it right this time, or I have to go," he says, and I can tell that he means it. "Get ready. One ... two ... three ... go!"

I take a deep breath and spit it out fast: "Hey, Ed Mitchell, my name is Danny Yzemski, I'm ten years old, and I want to hear 'A Boy Named Sue' by Johnny Cash!"

"All righht!" he roars. He is happy with me. I have pleased DJ Ed Mitchell. "Thanks, Danny. Good job. You'll be on the air in a little while."

Then the line goes dead.

I hang around outside with my Kor/Sonic for the next two hours waiting to hear myself on the radio. I hear the same songs, over and over again. "Crystal Blue Persuasion" "Choice of Colors," "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," "My Cherie Amour." I sit there on the glider in the backyard of our bungalow in northwest Detroit. Two years after the riot, my mother is finally feeling that it's okay for me to be outside again as long as I stay in the yard. She remembers, like I remember, the towers of black smoke rising into the sky down Grand River Avenue four miles away, the rumors of looting at Grandland Shopping Center just a mile from our house, the tanks rolling down Fenkell after the governor called in the National Guard, the news reports of snipers, and the hazy, frantic footage of people running out of and into burning buildings. She'd really rather I just stay in the house.

Mark and Jim, the closest I have to friends, come by to talk, but I've got the transistor pressed to my ear. "I'm going to be on the radio," I tell them.

"Sure you are, Tub-ski," says Mark, then the two of them go off to play curb ball.

Just as well, since I'm still not supposed to go too far off our property. Besides, it's important that I hear my voice on the radio. After an hour and a half, I start to worry that the Ed Mitchell Show is going to end without him playing me or my song. Or that the battery in my radio is going to die. I do hear one other kid request a song. It's a little colored kid who says, "What's happening, Ed Mitchell? I wanna hear 'Girl You're Too Young' by Archie Bell & the Drells." Only when he says the name of the group, he stretches it out so it sounds like the Durr-ells.

I worry that maybe since he got to request a song I won't hear mine. Yet a half-hour later, after a commercial for Gene Merollis Chevrolet ("Gene Merollis, what a great, greatguyyy," sung by a man who sounds like he's got a cigar wedged in the side of his mouth), I hear my own voice squawk and boom over the airwaves. (My voice is lower than most kids my age because I'm husky.)

I'm so excited I can't even speak. I sit there on the glider in my backyard, swinging frantically, not even listening to the song, just letting the sound of my voice on the radio replay in my head. About the time when I do actually listen, the song begins to end. Johnny Cash is just about to shoot his dad for naming him Sue.

... But you oughta thank me before I die, For the gravel in your guts and the spit in your eye...

A few moments later, Johnny Cash is done singing and the music fades. I know that even though CKLW will play this song hundred of times in the next few weeks, this is the last time I'm ever going to hear it in exactly this way.

My 1/25-Scale Life

Most mornings this summer, I'm awakened by the sound of the radio coming from the kitchen. It's tuned to WJR, the Great Voice of the Great Lakes. I lie in bed listening to "The Look of Love" by Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66 or "The Unicorn" by the Irish Rovers until my father comes to wake me up. He knocks on the doorjamb, then grabs my foot and gives it a shake.

"Up and at 'em, Daniel."

"Okay, Dad."

Even though I just got out of bed, J.P. McCarthy, the disc jockey on WJR, is easy to listen to. He's like an uncle you didn't know you had. He says dopey stuff like "Good morning, world!" and "Remember my name in Sheboygan!" but I like him anyway. I notice the way my mother reacts to him. At the tiled kitchen counter, preparing a cup of tea for me, I watch as she pauses to listen to something he's saying. That moment, with her head cocked downward, half-smiling, I notice how pretty my mother is.

"What're you up to today?" my dad says. He asks me this every day.

"I'm just going to work on a model car downstairs."

"Why don't you get out and play some ball with your friends? How about that TV2 Swim-mobile? Isn't that around here today?"

"Oh no," says my mother. "Every kid in the inner city has swam in that thing. He'll get worms and god knows what else."

My father sighs. "Well, try to get some fresh air."

"Like there's any fresh air in this city," says my mother.

"I'm not all that crazy about fresh air," I chime in.

This is where my father gives up. He doesn't actually know that my mother barely lets me leave the house anyway. Not that I mind. It doesn't matter to me that it's summer. It's too hot and bright outside, the days too long, and my mother just wants me to be safe.

I even have my own special room in our basement. It was a coal bin before my parents bought the house, but now it's just a little narrow room where things end up, with an old red Formica drop-leaf kitchen table at one end where I build the model cars. I sit at that beat-up table, with the radio on and my X-acto knife and the squint of Testors model glue in the air. (I've heard that kids sniff it.) Under a dusty cone of light, I tinker together 1/25scale replicas of pro stock racers like the Sox & Martin Boss 'Cuda or the nitro funny cars of Don "The Snake" Prudhomme and Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen. (Natural enemies in nature and on the quarter-mile!) While I work, the only sounds are CKLW and the trill of the dehumidifier, clicking on, drying and vibrating the stinging chemical air. I sing along to the 5th Dimension or the Cowsills. Sometimes I imitate the disc jockeys while I sit there. "That's a little 'Keem-O-Sabe' for you, by Electric Indian. Coming up on four o'clock. It's about eighty-four degrees in the Motor City ..."

Occasionally, my mother hears me talking to myself down in the coal bin. She speaks to me from the laundry area. "Danny, stop talking when there's no one there to listen."

"Sorry, Mom."

"We don't need any more kooks in the family."

My mother doesn't want me to grow up to be a kook. Her whole family is full of kooks, according to her, which is why she doesn't talk to any of them.

I can easily spend the whole day building the model cars and listening to the radio, never leaving except to go upstairs to the bathroom or to make myself a sandwich. If my mother is in a bad mood, I just gulp back my hunger and swallow my spit. The washtub is my emergency place to pee.

During this third summer indoors, Jim sometimes knocks at the back door and calls for me, breaking my name into two parts. I sit there in the coal bin, ignoring him until my mother goes to the door and tells him that I'm busy. She never asks why I don't answer him. Jim lives seven houses down from me and is moving away soon, away from Detroit, away from the idea of another riot that comes even closer to our neighborhood. His family is moving to Livonia, near the mall. I'm mad at him for leaving, so I sit there, ignoring him, building the model cars, staying out of my mother's way and trying not to be a kook.

The Sound of Everything

It's also the summer that my father and I go to the drag races. ("This Sunday afternoon at Detroit Dragway! Gigantic Superfuel Funny Car Spectacular!" say the commercials, echoing from my radio.) We take the long drive downriver in my father's Biscayne to Sibley at Dix, pay our two dollars, pull into the wide dirt lot, and park among the gray-primered muscle cars with bulged hoods and raised rear ends, the trucks with their empty trailers, and the family station wagons. We trek through a series of fences and fields to the bleachers, working our way toward the sounds of tires squealing and engines revving.

"Are you ready?" my father says to me. This is something he asks me every time we go.

I nod. "I'm ready."

"Okay. Because it's going to be loud."

We sit among crowds of lean, smoking men in white T-shirts, with blowsy, puff-haired women in pedal pushers, and grubby kids with Kool-Aid-stained mouths, all of us watching the homemade hot rods, air-scooped and cherry-bombed, that rattle in on trailers from Inkster and Allen Park and Fenton and even Brightmoor, near us. The cars pair up on the drag strip and take off, one heat every minute or two.

"When are the funny cars?" I ask my father over the sound of a new red-orange Pontiac "The Judge" GTO skittering off the line against a Bondo-patched Nova. The Nova wins.

"Pretty soon, I think," he says, taking the last puff from his Old Gold before dropping it to the dirt and stepping on it. In his beige sport shirt and neat mustard slacks, he looks different from the other men.

The funny cars are candy-colored, airbrushed, decaled fiberglass shells of cars, like what I would find in one of my model car kits, only full size, with giant supercharged engines, enormous black slicks in the back and much smaller mag-rimmed wheels in the front, all mounted on a spindly tubular chassis with a cage where the driver is strapped in. They have names like Motown Shake and Comet Cyclone. The crews roll the cars up to the starting line, where they start the engines — a thunder that ignites the air and causes my dad and I to turn to each other, our eyes wide with disbelief. He yells to me and though I can't really hear him, I know what he's saying.

"Are you ready?"

Grinning, I nod my head again. "It's gonna be loud!"

The crew pours bleach on the track and drivers spin their slicks till smoke billows, heating them against the asphalt for traction. Roar and squeal, steam and stink, all at an awful wonderful volume that makes my heart clatter in my chest. Soon the air is harsh with bleach and nitro fuel and I can barely breathe from excitement and fumes. Ears buzz and eyes tear, until finally a tall traffic light — the Christmas tree — counts down to a green light, and the cars explode off the line, tires scorching asphalt.

It's over so quickly you would miss it if you looked away for seven seconds, but no one looks away. For those seven seconds, my father and I can see, smell, taste, feel, and hear sound. Sometimes my father brings earplugs, but we never use them. We crave that sound. We love how it feels, how it hurts. The sound fills us up inside. It seeps through my skin, between the bones and muscle, into the narrow spaces surrounding my heart, in those empty spaces that I hear when I beat my chest like Tarzan, the spaces that make my voice deep.

My Father's Beautiful Music

On the way home, our ears buzzing, our nostrils stinging, the pleasant stink of burned rubber and exhaust clinging to our clothes, my father lights an Old Gold and turns on the Beautiful Music station. It plays songs that I recognize from CKLW and WXYZ, but with no words and rerecorded by stringed orchestras. "Kites Are Fun," "I'll Follow the Sun," "The Windmills of Your Mind." Like CKLW, the station he listens to broadcasts from Windsor in Ontario just across the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit. What's strange about the station is that it goes off the air at sunset. When we are in the car together, coming home from the drags, and the Beautiful Music is on and the sun glows red behind us, the station will simply sign off for the evening, just like that. A song ends — say, "Both Sides Now" — then the Canadian national anthem starts playing. The announcer says, "CBE is now ending its broadcast day. We will resume programming at sunrise tomorrow." The song faces out, then suddenly there's static. Gone.

This disturbs me in some deep, awful way, a kind of fear that I want to explain to my dad, but just can't. How can I tell him that hearing a radio station go off the air, hearing the music fade away like that, terrifies me somehow, drains me of all the good sounds and vibration from the drags? It's crazy. Maybe it's because music always makes me feel better. So the station going off the air, the static, the quiet — that's the opposite of sounds and vibration and feeling better. It's fear and emptiness.

Luckily, most of the time when the Canadian station goes off the air, my father right away punches one of the thick chrome buttons on the radio and switches over to WJR, where there's a baseball game on or more music. Whatever it is, it's a relief to me. The worst thing that can happen is that he just turns the radio off.

The Jams

I don't care much for rock music when I first hear it. I find this out in a classroom that fall, when one of the tough kids in my class brings in a record for show-and-tell. Before class, I hear talk between the desks that the record Barry Stegner is going to play has swearing on it. His plan is to trick our teacher Miss Ferlin into playing it in front of the class.

I have certainly heard swearing before from my mother and father, yet I somehow fear that having curse words spoken aloud in the classroom will cause some sort of disturbance, possibly even a riot. (But then I'm always worried about something causing a riot.) If that happens, I naturally assume that Barry Stegner and the other bad kids will take over the classroom, hold our teacher Miss Ferlin hostage, then maybe burn down the school for good measure.

I feel like it's up to me to do something since I'm the only boy in the class who has won a citizenship award. (Me up on stage with dozens of girls, bursting with pride, not knowing that it will make me a target for every mean kid in the school — the tauntings, hat-stealings, book up-endings, and lunch-money muggings began shortly after that.) Yet I can't bring myself to tell Miss Ferlin that she's about to play an obscene recording. I don't want to be a tattletale, and besides, if there is a riot, what will they do to me? I have to keep my mouth shut.

An older, sandy-haired kid from the AV room rolls in a tanklike gray record player on a cart and plugs it in. The turntable silently starts to rotate.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Beautiful Music"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Michael Zadoorian.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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