Muzak, by Joseph Ponepinto

I liked the menu, but I didn’t care for the Muzak, so I moved to a different restaurant farther down the terminal to wait out the delay. But that place just played more of the same—Beach Boys, Elvis when he was fat and melodramatic, and “Roundabout” by Yes, the only song of theirs I never really liked—to go with a menu of Coneys and grilled cheese. That’s about as good as it gets in the airport.

If a man prefers Di Meola to Devo, has abandoned Celine for Satchmo, he learns to tune out much of public places. But the airport demands awareness, and every sound registers, reminds him of the conformity he is fleeing. When traveling, he may arrive late to avoid too much Muzak, attempt to board early, occasionally annoy other travelers with comments about the tired old tunes that they hadn’t realized filled the corridors and gates. Why can’t they play jazz, I asked an older woman once as we waited for a flight to Denver. She changed her seat, but not before pointing me out to the counter people.

I set my laptop down and ordered a Coney with chili and jalapeños, which they called a Coney con Carne. A zinfandel might have gone nicely with it, but they only had rosé and beer. I would have to endure for three hours before I could be on my way, and I so wanted to be in Cancun, where Rico had promised a week of forgetting—out of Detroit, away from the winter and the frigidity of divorce, and into the sun once again. The women, and the music would rescue me, he said.

Flat screens hung from the corners of the diner, smeared with college football and CNN, but I ignored them by sitting at a table that let me face out towards the mall and watch people on their hurried way to flights or their hurried way to the parking garage. In the latticework above I studied a few birds that flew out to the floor and gathered crumbs, and then jetted back to the dark spaces that humans had designed but could no longer access. One of them, a dun-colored little thing I recognized as a wren, hopped close to my seat to pluck a bit of French fry from the tile. Before he picked it up he puffed his chest out in triumph and started to sing. But instead of chirping, he tweeted the opening notes from a Billy Joel song. I remembered the tune from high school—something about lovers and an Italian restaurant. I watched in disbelief as the little bird whistled two bars, and then snatched his prize and flew off. Listening to the Muzak must have affected me. I simply had the song in my head and imposed the sound over the bird’s call.

The other diners acted like the Muzak didn’t exist. Certainly no one else in the mall paid it any mind. And why should they? Bad enough the people who produced it chose the most common, trite songs—I’d heard they even clipped the highest and lowest notes to avoid offending the dullest of musical palates, as if the purpose were not to entertain but to bore people into passivity. Looking out at the crowd rushing by it was hard to tell if it worked.

When “Tiny Dancer” wafted in, I asked my waitress if she liked Elton John. She said she never listened to his music, and would I care for dessert. I wanted to tell her she was listening to it now, but realized she wasn’t. “Ah, no thanks,” I said, and wondered where I might go next. An airport doesn’t offer much in the way of diversions.

I decided to pay the fifty dollars and spend the time in what my airline called its private club, even though anyone with fifty dollars could get in. The woman at the door, who appeared to be a former cheerleader dressed as a flight attendant, told me the club was full at the moment, but she could take my name and page me if a seat on a couch opened up. I asked if I could look inside to see if it was worth the trouble and when I poked my head through the doorway, I heard The Stones belting out “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” over the din of conversation and clinking glasses. Seemed like everyone was having a good time.

“It looks like a gas, gas, gas in there,” I said. “But I’ll pass, pass, pass.”

She gave me one of those looks she must have given to dozens of boys like me when she ruled high school, the kind that intimated she would tolerate my geekiness for only a few more seconds before summoning someone large.

After experiencing Muzak piped into the restrooms—Madonna this time—I wondered if any corner of this complex had been designated a Muzak-free zone. None of the gates qualified, and not the newsstand stores or the souvenir shops, and not even the ten-minute neck and shoulder massage salon, where they played Enya and Kitaro layered over the Muzak just outside.

A cacophony of banality. With each few steps I sensed another pop memory beamed unbidden into my brain. Why couldn’t I just accept it like everyone else, and let the sleepy waves seduce me? Instead I wandered for two hours, perusing tabloid magazines, pricing button-downs at the men’s clothier, trying to occupy my consciousness so I wouldn’t have to hear mediocrity’s soundtrack.

Finally, I tried the tram stop above the gates, near where I’d seen the birds retreat, and thought I’d found the spot. It had no seats or comfort—was just a plateau of steel and glass with driverless trains arriving every two minutes—but for a few seconds the Muzak vanished. It made sense: who could register tunes over the constant sound of announcements and approaching trains? But while I and a few dozen travelers stood by the doors, and between the Japanese and Spanish translations of the boarding instructions, I did hear something—a few notes from an old song, maybe by The Eagles or The Monkees, but whistled this time, as if someone had done it subconsciously. I saw no lips puckered, though, and the pitch registered an octave or two above a typical whistle. Maybe a speaker below us had gone bad, the tweeter mixing feedback into the Muzak. But the sound lacked the imperceptible hum of things electronic. What I’d heard sounded real.

And then it ceded to the rumble of the cars and a Chinese translation.

A few passengers noticed I neither boarded the tram nor left the platform, but since they were all on the move, their suspicions had no chance to foment into a call to security. Then, in the minutes between trains and before the crowd grew large enough to drown them out, the high-pitched notes sounded again, randomly: a few seconds of song, then silence, like a radio station beyond its range. It came from two sides, and then from at least four points around the platform, the notes harmonizing into an impromptu arrangement, as though several travelers had connected telepathically to produce this surround sound. But which travelers? No one near me seemed the least aware of the tune. And the fewer the number of people, the more distinct the shrill Muzak.  

With the tram stop clear of other travelers, a bird flew down from its perch among the girders, landing on the message stream above the tram doors and staring at me. It had the same gray plumage as the other bird, the same as the sky through the windows of the terminal. These ubiquitous little city birds were not, by any stretch of the imagination, creatures known for their singing. But as I watched, this one chirped three bars from “Rosanna” by Toto, and then flew back into the terminal’s crevices.

Dolores used to play that song while she jogged on her treadmill. She loved those silly tunes. Did I miss her so much that I had begun to hallucinate her favorite music? I was on the way to my future and didn’t have time to reminisce. Rico would fix me up with someone new, if only for the week—improvised, like jazz.

That was it—I needed a fix—something complex and moody. Some real music to bring me back to the present. My music. I slid down a wall in a corner of the station next to an unmarked door and took out my laptop. I had hours of music stored, and went right for Charlie Parker. I queued up “Groovin’ High” while I groped for my earbuds. But when I couldn’t find them I realized I’d be wrong to keep this beautiful music to myself. Let it fill the station—I didn’t care what the rest of the travelers heard or what they thought. I needed this. They did too. For once, I didn’t even look to see who noticed me. Ah, that alto sax, so clean.

But after the first few notes I heard a shrill echo of the sound, a poor attempt to copy the melody. Some fool in the nearby mob—some Neanderthal who thought great music began and ended with Olivia Newton John—had snuck up to make fun of me, and worse, to make fun of the legend by trying to mimic the music in a falsetto. I turned to show my anger, but saw no one, only the little bird again, its tiny claws wrapped around the steel rail at the top of the platform’s retaining wall. It lowered its head and cocked it, offering a single eye as if accepting a challenge. Then it tweeted the notes again, a little closer this time to the tune.

Shocked and overjoyed—I instantly looked around to see who might have shared this epiphany with me. But no one else had noticed. The passengers focused on the train doors, oblivious to all but their schedules. I turned back, but the bird had gone. I couldn’t have been hallucinating again, but then, how did the little creature pick up the song so fast?

I searched for the bird among the exposed girders above. I whistled a measure from the music myself, tweeting it like a bird call, but it refused to come back, leaving me to ponder the hows and whys of what happened. But the sounds still riffing from my computer awakened me from this ornithology, and reoriented me to the glass and steel around me, to the schedules and responsibilities that awaited. I turned it off and looked out over the rail to the terminal floor, leaning far enough to just hear the simple tones of the Muzak again, pacifying the travelers below. I should check on revisions to my flight, in case they’d fixed the problems faster than expected, or planned to delay us even more. I pulled out my boarding pass—Gate 41, at the opposite end of the terminal—the same one as when Dolores and I vacationed in Rome two years ago, a last chance at mending the rifts in our marriage that had metastasized. I remembered the airline staff boarding those who needed assistance. We joined half the remaining passengers as they pressed towards the gangway. In the moments before the next call, “Just The Two of Us” wafted through the mall’s sound system. I thought no one heard it but me, but my wife began to sing along, to my embarrassment. People stared as she strayed off key and hummed the words she couldn’t recall. For a while I ignored her, wondering what had possessed her to make this public display. When I saw some people laughing I asked her to stop, but she only sang louder and went on until the end, finishing with a little bow for the crowd, a few of whom clapped out of politeness. We were an hour into the flight before I found the words to ask her about it.

“You embarrassed yourself at the gate.”

“You mean I embarrassed you,” she said. “The song made me want to sing. It made me happy. You should have joined me.”

“I didn’t know the words,” I said.

“Of course you didn’t. That would be far too common of you.”

“I like what I like. What’s wrong with that?”

I’ve never compromised, really. Dolores took an early flight back to file the papers.

A couple and their three kids came up the escalator, the little ones’ personal devices beeping and chirruping the static of game noise, the twenty-first century Muzak. The husband looked at me as I sat on the floor looking at them. The platform filled in little more than a minute, and everyone huddled close to the tram doors when the speakers announced the next train arriving.

I stayed behind again, in my nest on the station tiles, with the man of that family continuing to watch me, as though I represented a threat. As the cars pulled away, I saw him dial his cell phone.

I should have exited down the escalator with those who got off the train. But instead, with the platform empty now, I stared into the black spaces in the terminal’s superstructure, listening hard, doing my best to block out the ambient sounds of the airport. In a few seconds it became useless—more people arriving, their jabber, the constant announcements, the thumping of luggage, the tram rumbling—this would never work.

“Quiet!” I felt myself standing. The muscles in my neck tightened as I shouted again. “Listen! Listen and you’ll hear them.”

The chatter stopped. As I looked into the rafters I could feel the eyes of the crowd on me, but I had to be sure of what I’d heard.

Conversation began to pick up. I sensed someone coming towards me. I would have to leave. But a step from the escalator, I heard the tweeted notes, at first just barely audible over the din: a tune reminiscent of John Mellencamp. Mixed in with it something that sounded like a Beyonce song. Then others, louder—a collection of pop ditties, bits of music I’d long forgotten, coming from the shadows of the terminal roof—awful songs, meaningless, mindless notes all jumbled among each other.

I stopped and turned back, nearly knocking over an elderly woman in my haste to scan the air above.

There! Perched across a beam at the top of the building. Four, no five birds reproducing the airport Muzak, while I stood, dumbfounded, in the middle of the platform.

How long had he and his brethren lived in the terminal? How long ago had they flown through unattended doors to escape the cold, and remained, adapting to an alternate dimension of artificial surfaces, atmosphere, and sounds, subsisting on the leavings of restaurant patrons, finding mates, breeding, and then raising chicks that may have never known the outside world? How many generations had been exposed to the Muzak all day and night, repeated year after year? And what had they learned? What had we done to them? Programmed them like our electronics to regurgitate the trite, forgettable songs of the mass market. I imagined that should they somehow escape this prison and make it back out to the woods beyond the airport, their fellow creatures would hold them accountable for having become so soft and clichéd, so human. And yet the bird that visited me had learned a measure of jazz from only one play.

The other travelers were oblivious to the show above. They pushed around me to board when the next tram came, and the deposited passengers did the same on their way to the escalators. Perhaps they could not hear the music at all and registered the sounds as no different from birds in the wild.

With the platform clear, the birds stopped singing and flew out of sight. I heard the terminal’s main PA system come on. The voice called my name. My flight would leave in just a few minutes and it urged me to return to the gate immediately. Somehow I’d missed the updates on the aircraft’s status. I’d have to take the next tram and then run through the terminal to make it.

I sweated noticeably while I held one of the hanging straps during the ride. The motion of the train around curves made it difficult to keep my balance and added to my already uneasy state. When we stopped I hustled through the throng of people trying to get on. A week on the coast; Rico and his women waiting. A life of indulgence, without a care, at least for a while. I’d almost forgotten.

I started running.

The PA called for me once more.

I came within sight of my gate—all the other passengers had boarded and the counter staff stared at me as though I were some kind of idiot. But as I ran the last hundred feet one of the little birds streaked in front of me and glided to a perch atop the departure screens. It looked like it would begin to sing again, to send me on my way with one more bit of Muzak.

I stopped. One of the counter people threw her arms up in frustration, and waved at me to hurry. She pointed at the gangway door, where another employee waited to close it.

I waved back to her and turned around. Rico could have fun without me. The women? They’d have to be happy with another tourist.

As soon as I got to the top of the escalator I opened the laptop again to let my playlist flow. Mingus might be a good choice to start with this time, or maybe “Take Five” by Brubeck. I’d play it over and over until they could repeat the notes perfectly. I would drive the Muzak from their tiny brains and replace it with my beautiful music. The unmarked door, of course, was locked, but at some point, maybe late at night when most of the flights had come or gone, and all the travelers had reached their destinations, I would find myself alone, and then I would find a way to open it. I would stay inside whatever room it contained, safe from the Muzak, and invite the birds to join me, and learn. I sat down to wait.

A pair of airport security people, a man and a woman, rose up the escalator like lengthening shadows. They had the same look as the hostess at the private club, and the counter people. I turned the beautiful music even louder.

Joseph Ponepinto is the co-Publisher and Fiction Editor of Tahoma Literary Review and the former Book Review Editor for The Los Angeles Review. His 2015 book, Curtain Calls: A Novel of the Great War, was a Kirkus Reviews featured review. His stories, articles, and criticism have been published in dozens of literary journals. A New York native, Joe has lived in a dozen locations around the country, and now writes in Washington State, where he lives with his wife, Dona, and Henry the coffee-drinking dog.


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