Storyglossia Issue 36, October 2009.

The Hum of Broken Things

by Scott Lambridis


Look at Morris leaning down, yelling at his dead wife's French horn. He sneers at it with his bulbous schnoz and sagging lips as if she might stare back at him from the brass.

He props it up against the hallway wall connecting the kitchen, the foyer, his workroom, and his wife's old music studio, now locked. His fifty-eight year old knees creak as he rises and paces the worn green tiles of the hallway. He is waiting for the doorbell to ring and his work to begin. He has been waiting for over an hour, and so he smacks the wall and the horn falls over again. It clangs against the tile and for a moment he is angry that she left it where it falls so easily. When it is silent, he is alone again.

His package of broken medical equipment has never been late before, and he hopes it is just a mistake. He has to keep busy. His box of fixed equipment is waiting by the front door for pickup, ready to be traded for a new box of broken parts just like it has every Friday since Meriwether Medical cut costs and closed Morris's office. Work has always kept him busy, and let him provide for Tricia who was fifteen years younger. What else did he have to offer her? Not looks, not conversation. Nothing else was important, not even her interruptions.

A year ago he told Tricia, "There's always going to be more trash. It can wait," as he waved her away and heard his workroom door close. At six o'clock in the evening he sealed the week's repaired devices in their shipping box and exited his workroom. He set the package down for morning pickup beside her horn, which was propped up against the hallway wall, his head filled with the barks and jangling chain of the neighbor's dog. He poked his head outside to shut the dog up and saw Trish's body on the curb. Her purple leggings were torn by asphalt, and her hand still gripped the handle of the trashcan, its contents spilled into the street. The car that hit her was gone, but its skid marks remained.

Finally, the doorbell rings, but it doesn't sound right. No one ever rings the back door anymore, the door that leads into Trish's studio. It rings again. Why the hell is the delivery man ringing the back door? He unlocks her old studio, swings the door open, and a year of captive smells pummels him with leather and horsehair and tarnished brass. Stacks of amplifiers and electronic tuners guard the entrance. The doorbell rings a third time. "Oh hell," he says, and high-steps over instruments, crossing the room. He knocks over a guitar that falls with a twang, then a snare drum crashes to the floor. He hits the blinds and yanks the back door open.

"Why the hell didn't you use the goddamn front door!"

"Oh. Mom said she always came to this one," says a young girl.

"You're not a delivery man."

"Um. No, sir." She stares at the stretched undershirt tucked into his pants, and he eyes the ribbon in her hair.

"Well, where the hell is he." Morris leans out the door and the girl steps back. He looks left, then right, down the empty suburban street, every house an off-white square with an oak tree rising to the power lines. He leans back, disappointed. "Nevermind," he says and starts to shut the door.

"Can you fix this?" says the girl, holding out a bruised instrument case.


"It's a clarinet. I got it at school. They shut down the music program."

"I said no."

"Why not?"

"My wife's the musician. She died."

"Oh. I'm sorry. Was it her time?"

"That's none of your business," says Morris, looking down at the concrete step.

The girl stares at her feet. Her toes push against the tops of her worn leather shoes.

"Well, are we done?" asks Morris.

"I just thought, you see, because you're the only instrument shop around here, and—"

"I'm not an instrument shop."

"Okay, but I mean, your wife—" says the girl. She blinks, her long lashes flapping at him.

"I'm not an instrument shop." He crosses his arms and tucks his hands into his armpits for a moment, then slices in front of his neck with his hand. "I'm up to my neck in instruments already. And you shouldn't be wasting your time with toys. Drop the noisemakers and ask your parents for some new shoes instead. Better yet, go get a job." He scans the road, and his foot taps on the doorjamb.

"But Mrs. Bobetter always said you could fix anything, and—"

"She did?" He eyes the instrument case, its textured plastic dusty, the metal snaps rusted.

"Mm hmmm." She nods up and down, up and down.

"One week," says Morris. He snatches the instrument case and slams the door.


Image by Tyler Landry.


Morris's metal probe hovers steady over the autopsied clarinet. He has removed the reed, the mouthpiece, the ligature, and each metal key before separating the barrel and bell from the body and placing them side by side in a neat row on his workbench's antistatic cloth. He draws his probe along each shape, searching for imperfections in the wood and metal, assessing the rust and tarnish. His toolbox once held only the simple set of dissection tools from his high-school biology class: scissors, scalpel, ruler, tweezers, dropper, and probe, but it has since expanded with dental tools, soldering irons, plastic nozzles, dust-free canisters, plastic coffee stirrers, tongue depressors, pipe cleaners, cotton balls, wash cloths, rubber gloves, wire crimpers, tissue paper, and Teflon tape. Everything needed for the meticulous care of any number of medical circuit boards, armatures, or consoles, if only he had some to fix to earn his keep. He uses his dental tool to scrape the rust from to the clarinet. He scrubs away the melted glue and grime with soap, cotton, pipe cleaners and a toothbrush before polishing everything with oil and a soft cloth until each piece of wood is smooth and everything metal is straight and bright and reflects the sunlight entering his one window.

Before he insulated his workroom with empty egg cartons, the sounds of students' off-key scales used to drive him batty. Over and over, note after painful repetitive note, until the timbre alone was enough to make his head throb. Now, with his window uncovered, he hears the rattling of the chain as the neighbor's dog runs in circles, barking at the birds lining the wires.

He reconstructs the hardwood skeleton and blows into its mouthpiece, but his breath is weak and its tone is a pancake landing in mud. He grunts and puts down the clarinet. If he had some tubing, clamps, and a funnel, he could use a balloon to force air through the clarinet without having to learn how to play the damn thing. He could keep it blowing nice and steady, and get that tuner glowing a solid green in no time. On his way to his bedroom on the second floor, he gives the wall a whack and listens to his wife's horn clang against the tile. "Nighty-night," he growls.



Under the morning sun, Morris weaves through the throngs combing the weekend flea market in the parking lot of the old train station. College girls fondle glass-blown vases, hand-carved ashtrays, and cheap beaded jewelry. Army surplus junkies in knit wool hats hover around glass cases filled with Zippo lighters, knives, and emblems and canteens from old wars. Audiophiles slide in and out of tents filled with faded records in plastic egg crates, distracted only by trays and trays of cheap sunglasses. Morris holds his breath past rows of pluming incense, then passes a booth full of sands-of-time mobiles suspended and cantilevered and casting shadows on the fabric walls.

A young couple walks towards Morris wearing long silk scarves, their arms around each other's shoulders. Morris knows they are watching him, wondering how long he's got left and what he's doing with it, this man whose belly stretches his suspenders farther every year. If they only had more time they would fill their tomorrows with greatness. As they get close, their eyes turn away, and Morris wonders what he will do with himself if his shipments stop coming altogether. Suddenly, a generator cuts out and the air horns squelch with feedback, but only the cheap Christmas lights lining the booth entrances go out. Everyone stops, but Morris keeps walking. As the shrill ringing fades, he watches patron after patron blink and then go about their business.

"Hello, hello, welcome to Joe's, I'm Joe," caws a mud-skinned man with a shiny and dented bowling ball of a head. Behind him, a technology swamp spreads out before Morris. Crates and trays and bins are stacked and arranged on the blacktop, on the concrete parking dividers, and on fold-up tables scattered between. Joe bills himself as bike shop, not a junk shop, but in Joe's world it seems that anything could be a bicycle part.

Morris moves towards the labyrinth of used parts, but his eye catches the sunlight glinting off the rabbit-ears of an eight-inch television propped on a stool amidst the tables. An elderly woman sits stiff and moaning in front of it, staring into the static coming from the television's snow-filled eye. A network of varicose veins, blue and green and purple, frames the shadow between her bare splayed legs. Morris stares at the veins and in his mind they wiggle and throb like worms. He wonders what Trish would have looked like at the same age, and then what he'll look like, and in the midst of his wondering Morris forgets what he came here for. How long until he's useless too, until he'll have nothing to do but wait for his time to run out? The television's static lets a jazz melody slip out before swallowing it back up, and the woman's lips tremble.

Morris listens to the slopping and sloshing of liquid as Joe shakes a bottle of salad dressing up and down, up and down, and pours it over a hearty salad. A small child with a bright blue cape pops up from inside a used tire, fetches the salad bowl, and settles next to the old woman to fork salad into her slack mouth. The boy pushes her jaw up but it just hangs whenever he releases it. Morris blinks and scans the labyrinth again, his hand hovering over the piles.

"Daaad! She's not chewing again," yells the boy.

Joe rewinds the VCR attached to the little television and hits play, but the static just changes color and tone. He smacks the side and jazz hums from the speakers. The old woman chews her greens and Morris's hands remember what to purchase.



In his studio, Morris attaches rubber tubing to his new funnel. He cups the mouth of the clarinet with the funnel and wraps it with Teflon tape to make a seal. He runs the tubing's other end through an electric guitar's wah-wah foot pedal and seals it with a full balloon, using the pedal as a graded lever. He rocks the foot pedal forward and uncrimps the tubing, pushing the balloon's air through to the clarinet, which expels the throaty warble of a lonesome seagull. He continues to force air through the clarinet while twisting its keys with pliers until each tone creates a steady green bar on his tuner. Task complete, he slumps back in his metal chair, scraping it against the cement floor.

He rubs his eyes, thinking of the old woman at the flea market listening to her jazz, wondering what she thinks about when she hears it. A cool draft enters from below his window. Fall is coming, and in the silent waning humidity he imagines the flexing of wood and strings inside Trish's music room. He once read in a technology journal that scientists were deciphering the age of the universe by measuring the pitch of space's background radiation, and he imagines it must sound like the stretching and twisting of clouds in a giant storm. He wonders what pitch his wife's horn makes when it falls over, and then jumps up with an idea.

After another round of funnels, tubes, and tape, Morris stomps on the pedal and the two instruments ring out together, the clarinet and his wife's French horn, in a tone deep and terrible and beautiful, like the sustained clang of brass falling again and again onto a giant porous stone. He feels the tension of the two tones pull at him from either side, and as they part he sees his wife calling for him to take out the trash, and him nodding and waving. Any other day but her last one she'd have smacked him on his bony ass until he paid attention to her.

He refills the balloon and rocks the foot pedal forward again, bringing back the vibrations. He clips one of the clarinet keys down and uses pliers to twist the bell of the clarinet until the two instruments sing together in a tense harmony. The frequencies vibrate through him, expanding his chest and thumping his heart. Tears well up, and through the water he sees his late wife in the train station playing her horn so beautifully that he has no choice but to walk to her and listen.

He watches her now again for the first time, he in his mid-thirties, she in her early twenties. Her whitewashed jeans. Her ink black hair bobbing over her turtleneck as her slow, solemn melody amplifies off the concrete in the train station. Passing commuters toss dollars into her open instrument case. She looks away from them every time, just like all of the musicians in the station that he's seen, but when Morris drops a few coins her eyes lock with his and she smiles. She looks confident. Just a simple girl in cheap clothes playing music for change. Within an hour he will be walking with her around the station. They will drink coffee as he tries to ask her out on a real date. Morris feels the trains rumbling about him and the voices squawk through the loudspeaker before his foot pedal reaches the floor. As the balloon empties, the station dissolves into his workroom, and the two instruments wheeze to silence.

His memories of his wife feel new with unreviewed information, as if the tones themselves contained the memory. He wonders how many other tones hold memories, if maybe all memories could be wrangled from the proper notes. If only he could have had another twenty years with Trish. He wants to pat her butt as he leaves his studio for dinner. He wants her to pull him in by his suspenders for a kiss. He loved that they could eat together without needing to make conversation, content with each other's company. Sometimes that's all that's needed for twenty years to pass. He wants to crawl into bed with her again when she is already asleep or pretending to, to see her black hair fall over her back as he reaches under the covers with hands as cold as winter death, warming them up between his legs before sliding them along hers so he can fall asleep with a grin.

Morris feels as if he's been in his workroom for hours, but the sun has not yet set. Time seems to have been slowed by the music, the tension of the notes opening space for his mind to explore. The dogs and birds outside his window stare at him as if confirming his discovery. Morris considers the factors: number of instruments, tonal range and harmony, volume. If the consonance of two instruments can stretch a few minutes into hours, then twenty might even hold a day of memory open. The right harmony might do something to help find what is lost, forgotten, or abandoned. At what point does time get stretched so thin that it snaps open into infinite space? The bins and stacks of memory to be browsed forever? No more living in fear of time. That would certainly be worth something. The wind picks up, and the birds fly away. He stares into the brass horn at the peppery fibers of his hair and the grooves in his face.

"I need more," says Morris to his reflection.



Only the ringing of the doorbell interrupts his work. At the back door, a heavy teenage girl leans a stand-up bass against the house. She says it's her brother's. Keep it, she says, I never want to see it again. And a thank-you-very-much to Mrs. Bobetter for encouraging him. Sure, says Morris, taking it before she can continue. A boy with four fingers on his right hand delivers a trombone and asks for cash, but Morris's growl sends him running. A girl eating a corndog with mustard dripping on her blue dress comes next and gives him a flute she found abandoned in the street, just outside the chalk outline of a hit and run. A boy wearing mittens and sandals brings his mother's banjo. Just don't tell her I came here, says the boy and Morris nods as the boy runs off. Then the girl from last week returns for her clarinet.

"It's not ready yet," grumbles Morris.

"Oh. Next week? You think you can fix it?"


"I hope you don't mind. I told some people at school that you were fixing my clarinet. They don't care much for music, but they asked for your address," she says. She smiles at him, then looks down and wiggles her shiny new red shoes.

"Yeah," says Morris, before shutting the door.



At the flea market, Morris picks through Joe's bins as Joe tries to feed the old woman. The television is giving off white noise, and Joe sighs with frustration, but Morris is not distracted. He finds a wooden hand piano, plucks its metal key, and stuffs it into a white garbage bag. Beneath a portable air compressor, he finds a ukulele with a split back and a missing tuning peg. He untangles the compressor's power cable from around the instrument as he pulls it out, accidentally knocking off another tuning peg as he bags it.

Joe slams the salad bowl on top of the television and yells, "Damn it, mom, eat!" A leaf of lettuce hangs from her slack mouth. His boy turns the corner, laughing and running from his sister. "Boy, the hell'd you do to the TV?" Joe yanks the boy's blue cape, choking him and dropping him to the ground. "You break it? Did you?"

"You ripped my cape," cries the boy. "I need it to fly and you ripped it!"

"You break the TV? Want grandma to starve?" His hand is raised, threatening.

"Yes! I wish she were dead," says the boy. Just saying what everyone is probably saying to themselves, thinks Morris. Kids, always telling the truth. No wonder Trish never asked him for children. She probably figured he was too busy for kids, and wouldn't deal with the crying. The boy scrambles to his feet and huddles between his older sister's legs.

Joe advances, his fists tight.

"Relax," interrupts Morris.

Joe turns, rage in his eyes.

"Picture dead on the television?" says Morris.

"Been dead for years. It's the sound."

"Bet I can fix it," says Morris.

"I don't need you back here messing with my shit. Boy broke it, boy'll get it fixed."

"Come on, let's make a deal. If I do it, you don't charge me," says Morris, indicating his bags, and then nodding at a pair of 2x4s leaned against the nearest table.

"Fine, but you on the clock." Joe looks to his glass bottle of vinaigrette.

Morris grabs Joe's spoon and kneels down in front of the television, trying to ignore the old woman's legs. He pops out the VHS tape and slides his spoon in the slot. He taps the heads and scoops away the grime. He flips the spoon around and nudges away a layer of caked ash surrounding the soldered wire leads, then flips the spoon back around, tightens a few loose screws and realigns the gears that hold the tape against the heads. After a couple minutes, the television blasts out a rollicking melody and the static shudders into the picture of a jazz orchestra in a small club with pink and purple lights. A younger version of Joe's mother is tapping her leg and playing a clarinet beside the singing pianist. Joe's mother starts to rock in her metal fold-up chair, scraping it against the blacktop, and knocking Morris over. His hip throbs. These frail, untradeable bodies, thinks Morris.

Joe grumbles and helps Morris up. "All right, take what you need." The boy forks greens into his grandmother's mouth. Her buzzing lips hit the metal fork and make the boy giggle. Joe stares at the television as the old woman chews.

"That's your old lady, right?" says Morris, hoping to keep Joe distracted as he adds to his plunder: a plastic recorder, rusted kazoos and harmonicas, a few old dusty bellows, and a bag of assorted bolts, tubes, and wire.

"Yep. My pops recorded this a couple weeks before he died," says Joe, bagging Morris's items. "Since our place burnt down, this tape and that television's all she's got left. She won't even eat without it playing." Sally watches the boy fork the last leaf of lettuce into her mouth. When he turns back around, Morris is gone, dragging his garbage bags home.



Look at Morris now, surrounded by dozens of instruments in his workroom. They are pitched on shelves and leaning against each other. Nine of them are connected by tubes and wires, tape and string to three larger tubes which connect to the open ends of three old bellows, themselves attached to the concrete floor with strips of Velcro. The top handles of the open bellows are looped with wire extending out and strapped with duct tape to the pedal, so that when he presses on the pedal it will force the bellows' handles together. He cradles the horn in his arms before connecting it to the foot pedal. He weighs down the pedal with a cement block, but the pedal doesn't move, too weak to push all that air through so many tubes. He tops it with a second cement block, which still does nothing, then removes them both and steps with all his force onto the foot pedal. The horn, connected to the pedal by the shortest length of tube, is the first to moan. Then another instrument, then another, until they all hum in overlapping harmonies. With the pedal midway through its arc, Morris steps off and replaces the cement blocks, adding just enough pressure to continue forcing the pedal down. He moves between the instruments, adjusting tuning pegs and twisting bolts and tightening screws, then closes his eyes and lets his chest fill with the sound. He sees the overhead fluorescent lights as he ascends the subway stairs, blinding him as they did so many years ago. He hears her horn straining through the concrete walls, that terrible tone that he first loved. He is there with her, walking in the park outside the station for what feels like forever. She looks at a father teaching his daughter how to cartwheel in the grass.

"Children are the only ones who stop and actually listen to me play. Isn't that amazing?" she says.

"Kids. What a waste of time," says Morris before pulling her around to face him. She frowns, then blushes and laughs and agrees to dinner.

Sure, he was nervous then, he was improvising. Why didn't she ever ask again? A child could have been a piece of her left behind. For him to take care of. To take care of him.

Morris wakes on the floor with dried tears on his face. There is a thick indentation on his forehead from laying on the foot pedal. His nostrils and tongue feel coated with glue and oil and solvent. He wipes drool from his lip, his fingers still gripping pliers. Outside, dogs face his window, silent and listening. Birds swarm overhead, around his telephone lines and power lines, landing only to fly back into the shifting avian mass. His instrument's compound waves pulse and throb and call them. Even the trees seem to still be swaying in rhythm, as if they too had discovered memories in the sounds. He wonders what sounds dig into the old woman's mind, and what sounds would bring Joe out of his gruffness. The possibilities overwhelm Morris. With a small number of sounds, there could be an infinite number of memories sparked in all the organisms of earth. What if he had an infinite number of sounds? There could be more instruments if he had a proper way to pump the air between them. There are other towns and other flea markets and maybe even instrument shops still open. Thousands of other instruments. He could knock a wall or two down, take over his wife's studio, maybe even spill into the backyard. He could tune sets of instruments to each other until every note of every culture's scales and music are accounted for. He could even start making his own instruments out of common items, sounds and memories that music has never captured. Once everything is connected, one switch will set it all in motion. The strings will vibrate, the reeds will flutter, the copper, tin and aluminum will spit air, and the resonance will push and pull everything with it. The nails and screws, the fibers of the wood and fiberglass, they will hum too, along with the muscles and tendons and the fluid in Morris's blood and brain. The tone will reverberate out of his room, out of his house, into the streets and windows of this town, over the flea market, ringing in the materials of earth and man, growing in intensity until the waves resonate with every living cell. When the instrument is complete and the sound is big enough, its feedback will generate overtones and compound harmonies, filling everyone with sound and memory, not just Morris. It will create a universe of music within the brain's synapses, time unlimited in mind's space, and no matter of physical principles measured or doled out will alter or abet its infinity. All the hourglasses will break and everyone will live in infinite noise, harmonizing with the underlying tone of the universe.

He must finish it, but the doorbell rings.

"So what's wrong with the back door?" he asks as he opens the front door. A delivery man in a brown jumpsuit hands Morris a large cardboard box imprinted with Meriwether Medical. He peels off the packing tape and sorts through the box. If he had a hydraulic motor from a medical scanner, or hell, even a dental chair's air compressor, he could replace the bellows and really get them going, but he finds none. Instead, he pulls out an X-ray machine's armature arm missing its mounted emitter. He swivels each of the joints linking the two-foot shafts, testing the flexibility, and then takes it to his workroom.

He finishes building more shelves with wood from Joe's shop and lines the walls with the brass instruments. He stands the stringed instruments beside each other in two perfect parallel lines so that when he connects the X-ray armature and lines it with bows, they will draw across the strings in unison. He bends a wire hanger and wraps it around kazoos and recorders and harmonicas so that they jut directly from the central pedal, then connects a string of smaller foot pedals to a row of congas and drums and shakers. He unplugs the phone from his bedroom, re-connects it in his workroom, and shoves its receiver into a box with a microphone connected to his wife's electric guitar amp to add its perfect F. Every bit will help. He stands on the central pedal, but nothing happens. He jumps, and it gives an inch, before pushing him back up.

"Dammit, I need a pump," he yells, wiping his handprint from the brass of his wife's horn, then exits his workroom.



Look at Morris heading to his curb as night unfolds and the lights of the train station blink out one by one. A car whizzes by as he sets his trashcan down. Another passes, followed by a bicyclist on half-deflated tires. His mind turns to the old woman at Joe's shop. Her television will break and chew up her precious recording soon enough, beyond his ability to fix it. But it doesn't matter anymore. She'll be just fine. When he closes his eyes he sees his great and giant instrument, almost complete. It is one, not many. It is beautiful, a new creature. Almost eight concentric rings like the frame of a ribcage. With veins and arteries of tubes and string and wire running to the fat valves of the central heart, ready to start pumping. He can picture the amplifiers for each of the hundred-plus microphones that will line the room like a nervous system. All manner of broken and fixed things, just waiting to resound and reset the clocks inside the lonely and disconnected minds of the world.

He returns to his workroom. He opens his one window and lets in the night, and then smiles at the absence of wind or children or barking. He steps into the empty space next to his wife's horn, where his instrument's real heart will go. Yesterday, the girl returned for her clarinet, but he wouldn't give it to her.

"I didn't say you can have it," she said. Her shiny shoes tapped the ground as Morris locked his back door.

"I'm sorry," said Morris. "But I have a date with an air compressor."

"I'm telling everyone. No one's going to come by anymore."

"That's okay," he said, and then headed to the flea market, leaving the empty-handed girl pouting on his doorstep.

Now Morris bends down and attaches his new air compressor to the tubes snaking through his foot pedal. It is portable, meant for tires, but should have plenty of force. He checks that the motor's switch is off, and then runs the power cord to the outlet beneath his desk, careful not to jostle any of the stands or clamps holding all of the instruments. He plugs it in, stands and waits a moment. As he steps on the power switch Morris isn't thinking about the familiar voice waiting in the inhale of his memories tonight, or the shout the old woman will give when she hears his instrument, or even the monstrous screech his instrument is beginning to exhale. He is thinking of the squeak—barely perceptible beneath the cacophony—of something brass tipping off its perch, falling and dragging its tangle of metal clamps and tubes into the rest of the connections. For just a moment he wants to stop and fix it, and then gives himself to the instrument.

Copyright©2009 Scott Lambridis

Scott Lambridis' work has appeared in the UK's Black Static, and will be in the winter 2009 issue of Transfer. Born and raised in New York, he earned a degree in neurobiology from UVa—which he promptly abandoned for a creative career. Before moving to the Bay Area he spent his evenings crafting stories into music, artwork, and macabre multimedia books as founder of He is now completing his MFA at San Francisco State, and working on a book about the scientist who discovered the end of time. You know, the usual.

Interview with Scott Lambridis


Image copyright©2009 Tyler Landry