Chapter Eighteen: “Do they still use iron lungs?”

Sybil worked at a recording studio as an assistant producer. She mostly worked in-studio with a guy named Chris Keats. They worked together on all kinds of music at a very small record label. Sybil and Chris had first started working together on the debut album of a jazz harpist. That entire process had been very long. The harpist had taken numerous breaks per recording session to down cough syrup in the bathroom and then pretend she hadn’t. Jazz harp was also very difficult to listen to, let alone focus on several hours a day for months on end. By the time the album was finished, Chris and Sybil had been branded the perfect team. According to their manager, Angry Bob, if they could make it through a jazz harp album together, they could make it through anything together.

Sybil and Chris were currently working on the sophomore album of a man named Tom Dawson, a folk singer-songwriter. He was a big deal locally and Sybil had initially been quite pleased that she’d been assigned to his album. He had a beautiful voice and he was extremely talented with several different instruments. More to the point, it wouldn’t be five months of listening to someone pluck out atonal jazz music on a harp while high on cough syrup. It was, in Sybil’s opinion, a win-win.

But then things took a bit of a turn with Tom. For one thing, he developed a crush on Sybil, which would’ve been fine if he didn’t take every opportunity available to him to express his deep infatuation with her in a myriad of mediums. He opened nearly every recording session with a poem he’d written for her the night before, which was awkward to say the least.

“Beat poetry was a bold choice for this kind of confession,” Chris said to Sybil the first time it had happened. “So is this moment.”

The two of them were on one side of the glass booth, looking at Tom as he recited the poem he’d written for Sybil.

“I really wish this wasn’t happening,” Sybil told Chris, grimacing.

“You’re not the only one,” Chris replied.

“This is the kind of shit you should only admit out loud on your deathbed,” Sybil continued, thinking about how remarkably long the poem was whilst simultaneously praying for it to end.

“Even then,” Chris began to return. “Take it to the grave, man. Take it to the grave.”

The other issue with Tom was that he was the most depressing man of all time. Sybil had read Sylvia Plath poetry that was more upbeat than Tom was. Tom wrote songs about dying orphans and species that were slowly going extinct at the hands of humanity. Every single song on his album was sad and slow and slightly painful to sit through. Only two weeks in, Sybil began to wonder if they’d be able to make it to the end of the album without someone slitting their wrists during recording.

“Do you find these songs a wee bit sad?” Sybil asked Chris during one of the breaks. Tom had gone to finish writing his song about a dying man who’d been abandoned at sea. The song told a detailed and extensive narrative about the man slowly losing his mind before unwisely trying to befriend a killer whale.

“Good Christ,” was Chris’ response. “A little sad? He is the single most depressing man I’ve ever met. His song about whaling, ‘Here Comes the Harpoon Again’, is the saddest thing I’ve ever been forced to listen to on repeat.”

“Oh, thank God,” Sybil said, relieved. “I thought I was the only one who thought that. Although, that song about orphans we just finished with is absolutely more depressing. I don’t even think actual dying orphans are as sad as that song is.”

“By the time this is complete, we’re going to have a fourteen-track album of the most depressing songs ever created,” Chris said, leaning back in his chair. “I can’t wait for him to go on tour. It’ll just be an audience full of people cloaked in black and moaning about the futility of life.”

He probably wasn’t far off. It would undoubtedly be the saddest series of concerts of all time. By the end of the tour, it would just be Tom singing to an empty venue with only his guitar and beat poetry to keep him company, the audience having all gone off to weep alone in the darkest recesses of their homes.

Production progressed as well as could be expected. Tom was, after all, extremely talented, if not immensely sad. Sybil managed to ignore his crush on her reasonably well and Chris said nothing more about it, although Sybil was fairly convinced that had more to do with his dedication to apathy than his respect for either her or Tom and their feelings. Chris didn’t care to get involved simply because he didn’t care. Though the poems continued, Sybil ignored them and Tom said nothing to her directly in an actual conversation. And that was just as well because she was hoping to avoid the issue altogether for as long as humanly possible. She’d ignore it until the end of time if she could.

And then Tom wrote her a song, a horribly depressing song about unrequited love and loneliness. It was pretty difficult to ignore at that point. He mentioned her name in it. He sang it to her at the beginning of one recording session early Tuesday morning. Sybil nearly dropped her coffee. Chris, meanwhile, stared at Tom with a look of abject horror on his face, clearly stunned, as if he couldn’t quite believe what Tom was actually doing. Sybil knew the feeling. She figured her face looked much the same, which, if that was the case, was likely not very encouraging for Tom. And yet he continued.

“This is my literal worst nightmare, by the way,” Sybil informed Chris casually, as if she could will the awkwardness away by pretending to be fine. It didn’t work. Chris turned to her with horror written across his face.

“For the record, I’m not enjoying this either,” he told her. She appreciated the sentiment.

“Oh, I don’t think any of us are,” she replied, voice still cavalier and light. “Least of all Tom.”

“Well, no, of course not Tom,” Chris returned. “I’m not sure he’s capable of enjoying things ever. This is supposed to be a love song, but it sounds less like a love song and more like a cry for help. Jesus Christ, this is more depressing than the song he wrote about that guy who dies inside an iron lung from polio and his mother hurls herself into the grave after him.”

“Do they still use iron lungs?” Sybil asked conversationally, hoping to change the subject. She’d already begun to successfully drown out the sound of Tom’s song and she hadn’t looked at him since it had first begun. If she could get Chris to stop talking about it, then she would be able to fully pretend that nothing out of the ordinary was happening and move on with her life in blissful and willful ignorance. Repression and denial were her best friends.

“I assume not,” Chris answered, still looking a tad startled, but readily moving into another topic of conversation anyway. “How often do people get polio these days?”

“I don’t know,” Sybil answered thoughtfully. “We should look it up.”

And so the two of them researched polio on her iPhone while Tom finished his song to her. Then they moved on to recording the next song off the album and nobody said anything about the song he’d written her at all. Sybil tried to gauge if Tom looked put off by that, but it was hard to tell because he always looked generally mopey, like someone had just driven over his pet kitten. He didn’t really look any different than usual, so she moved on with her life in an effort to wash the whole terrible incident from her mind entirely under the assumption that everything was fine.

But then Tom didn’t show up to record the following day. Sybil immediately assumed he’d offed himself, but Chris assured her that he’d merely called in sick. Apparently, Tom was taking a personal day because he “wasn’t feeling his best”.

“Maybe he has a cold,” Sybil suggested.

“Maybe he’s just been indirectly rejected by the current love of his life and is at home sobbing for hours at a time,” Chris returned shrewdly.

“Let’s not talk about it,” she said swiftly.

“He’s probably drowned in his tears by now,” Chris continued anyway.

“You bastard,” Sybil glared at him.

“It would be a fitting end to his life really,” Chris added nonchalantly. “He could be buried at sea with his whale friends. It’d be even more fitting if his body was eaten by a killer whale.”

“You really are a dick, you know that?” Sybil returned.

“I do know that, yes,” Chris nodded.

Tom didn’t show up the following day either. At this point, Sybil had begun to worry seriously, no thanks to Chris, who had suggested that perhaps Tom was resting in an iron lung. Sybil decided that, loathe as she was to actually do it, she had to go check on Tom. They had a break because the recording time Tom had booked hadn’t been filled by anybody else. Sybil was determined that they go to Tom’s apartment and make sure nothing seriously bad had happened to him. Some wallowing would be fine. Sybil could ignore that. A death would be harder for her to overlook. She made Chris come with her.

“Why do I have to go?” He demanded. “I didn’t crush him emotionally.”

“Because you care about him,” Sybil told him, putting on her jacket and throwing Chris’ at his face. He caught it and put it on reluctantly, grumbling bitterly the entire time about how he didn’t in fact care and would much rather have used the time to nap or play Sudoku. They bought soup from a bistro along the way just in case Tom really did just have a cold. Even if he wasn’t sick, but was just crying his eyes out in the darkness, Sybil figured some soup wouldn’t go amiss. Soup was good.

Tom lived in a very nice studio apartment downtown. It took them forty minutes to get there on the subway. Chris spent nearly the entire trip muttering about Sudoku and then making up a song about soup to sing with the rest of the car. Unfortunately, nobody was really interested in joining in so he sang by himself until Sybil took pity and jumped in as well. It morphed into Tom’s song “Here Comes the Harpoon Again”. The woman sitting across from them with her two children moved to a couple seats at the opposite end of the train car, flashing them nervous looks the entire time.

“You know, I get that,” Sybil said as she watched them move. “This song is terrifying.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Chris returned. “I find it soothing and delightful and not at all the reflection of a truly tortured mind.”

When they got to Tom’s apartment, after being buzzed in, they waited at his door listening to a truly alarming sequence of sounds emanating from behind Tom’s closed apartment door. It was like the moaning of a distressed walrus calling out to them with a semi-rhythmic frequency. It was a little lulling to be perfectly honest. It was like Sybil was being called to the sea, but slowly and surreptitiously, as if she might be coerced into hurling herself off a cliff edge to the tumultuous waves below once she got there.

Tom finally answered the door, wearing a bathrobe over a legitimate pyjama set and a pair of matching threadbare slippers. Apparently, in his downtime, Tom moonlighted as an aged British gentleman. He did appear to actually be sick. He had a red nose and he was holding a wad of tissues in one hand.

“Just thought we’d swing by and see how you were,” Chris told Tom as Sybil handed over the container of soup. “Give you some soup.”

“Oh thanks,” Tom said forlornly. “I’m okay. Just a cold. I’ve been listening to whale sounds to help me sleep.”

“Of course you have,” Chris returned.

On the way back to the studio on the subway, Chris played Sudoku on his phone. If that had always been an option, Sybil didn’t know why he’d bothered complaining so much.

“You know, in retrospect, the soup may have just been an encouragement for him to write you more depressing love songs,” Chris told her. Sybil ignored him. It was just the first step in her repression process.


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