Before there is the man, there is his sound. There will never be a quiet entry for him, never a sneak. Not when he drags that drum around every place he goes.
The apparatus is not his choice, and neither are its heartbeat rhythms. The apparatus is his heart, though not exactly. It could be called supplemental.
Two thick plastic veins plug into his heart, one for compelling blood, one for repelling it. The veins snake up and around his lungs, nestle in the sinews of the chest. From there, they drift down to his opposite sides, lacing an elegant course through so much tissue.
The veins emerge on either side of him. They enter a drum, a deep timpani, its kettle lined with gently whirring fans that cycle and mix oxygen with blood. The soft mallets rest in the mechanical arms on either side of the drum. thoom THOOM.
Here, his supplemental circulatory system meets a supplemental ambulatory system—or drum cart. He pushes the cart along on spherical wheels. Two leaves are bolt-fastened underneath the surface, to make a comfortable table arrangement, and a fold out chair is further bolt-fastened to those. Extra lengths of vein are wound and hooked to the legs of the cart like vacuum cords, for length, to navigate a narrow passage or sleep in a bed.
When he sleeps, that drum is soft and low. I’m not sure if I hear it then or if I imagine I hear it. When he’s awake, that’s when it thunders. I have heard his anger THOOMthoomTHOOMthoom and watched it rattle the teacups on our shared wall. I have heard his melancholy THOOM thoom THOOM and worried for the next beat. I have heard the lonely place between those, the THOOM thoom THOOM thoom, and that is where he stays most often.
His timpani rattles when he watches the six o’clock news. I watch it with him, from my own apartment, and his frustration travels through the floorboards to tickle the bottoms of my feet. The drum bounds whenever there are footsteps in our hall. As they pass his door, the heavy, slow roll of the timpani follows them. These songs have grown so familiar.
When Mrs. Beverly moved in across the hall, I heard new rhythms. There was the fluttering of his THOOMthoom Thoom thoom when she had a pupil on her old upright. Then the THOOMthoom THOOMthoom when she played alone, sometimes for hours. For a man who makes so much noise just to be alive, it must have been reassuring to hear the life of someone else.
There were nights when their musics met, her sad nocturnes pulling the rhythms from his heart, his timpani rolling and frantic until she smoothed it out with her fingertips, and their sounds melded and eased into the night. When they merged, the entire building was a haunted, romantic place of quiet knocks and slowly opened doors. A community of whispers formed, its people holding hands and waiting for the next composition, wondering to where and to whom the notes would carry them next.
One night, she was playing and he was beating at a flutter, and I heard him move. I heard his beat move to the door, heard the wheels of the cart resist. I heard the door open and the cart and the drum shift in the hall. I heard him pause out there. I heard the drum race and the rapping of his knuckles on her door. I heard the piano stop, the drum race, the door open. I heard the cart enter and the door click shut and the THOOMthoomTHOOMthoomTHOOM. It broke through the hall and into my apartment. It ran through my living room and under my feet before it climbed up into my chest.
The piano started again, a jubilant march and I heard his heart settle into it. She played a ragtime and he kept the beat. Then she played something gentle, a lonesome song I had never heard her play. And off went his heart.
THOOMthoomTHOOMthoomTHOOMthoom— A hold. The timpani silenced. I drew a sharp breath. I waited. I waited for the beat. The piano’s tentative notes. There was no beat.
The piano halted. Mrs. Beverly screamed. I ran out into the hall and opened her door.
He had thrown his mallets onto the floor. His arms were stretched open, hands wondering at the air. Mrs. Beverly crawled across the floor to find the mallets. She held them in her hands and looked at him. She held them up to his wondering hands. He brought the hands to his chest, the place where the heart laid and faltered. She stood up. She held the mallets. She drummed his heart.
She was crying and choking and gasping. THOOM thoom THOOM thoom thoom. His eyes rolled back into his head, glazed over in terrible excitement, his hands shaking at his chest, his breath a ragged rhythm.
I held him up and rolled his cart while she played the apparatus. She drummed and cried and I cried with her. We rolled him to the elevator and when Mrs. Beverly got tired, I took the mallets and kept the beat. We rolled and drummed and cried and wheeled him to the hospital.
Mrs. Beverly left the next morning. He returned to his apartment, the apparatus repaired. Mrs. Beverly’s sons went in and out of her room to carry away her things, and finally the piano. They did this to the beat of his grim heart, THOOMthoom THOOMthoom THOOMthoom, and they yelled for him to stop, as though he could.
His heart beats, I hear it now, and it is THOOM thoom THOOM thoom. The blood is sluggish, it rattles in, rasping and doubting. It is pulled and sifted out, resisting, wanting to stay there, in the heart. The blood wants to hide in that great muscle and seize it. I think that one day soon, I will be alone.