The Music in His Bones Doesn’t Need to be Heard

"Beginnings, Endings, and Other Musical Figures," an excerpt from BOOK OF EXTRAORDINARY TRAGEDIES by Joe Meno, recommended by Kevin Wilson

Introduction by Kevin Wilson

Joe Meno is an escape artist. Each time he shows you the peril of the enterprise, the threat of ruination, and yet he always finds some way out of seemingly impossible constraints. It’s rare to find a writer so good at breaking your heart while promising to try to find a way to help you survive it.

Over such a prolific career, Meno’s novels often introduce the reader to families where the great disaster has already happened; things are broken from page one, and we then work our way through their complicated histories and heartaches to see how some fresh conflict will resonate within the lives of these unique characters. 

In Book of Extraordinary Tragedies, Meno doesn’t hold back with the sadness. Aleks and Isobel are siblings, former musical prodigies, who were forced by tragedy to give up those dreams. The rest of the family—their parents and their younger brother—are also paralyzed by this family history of failure. But when Isobel falls ill, she moves back home with her daughter, and in such close quarters, the family feels the pain of their shared history anew. 

In this section, Aleks, who is half deaf from what he suspects is a genetic disorder, answers a phone call from his niece Jazzy’s preschool and finds out that she too is suffering from hearing loss. The shock of this news forces him to consider the trajectory of his own life, all that sadness and loss, but this time it spurs him into action, to find a way to make Jazzy’s life easier than his, even if it means sacrificing what little he and his siblings have.

And in fact, Meno’s characters seem to find solace in the idea that we all have some origin marked by pain. Aleks states at one point, “Who among us hasn’t been hurt? Who hasn’t been forced to give up on the one thing they thought mattered or had their heart broken in some other way?… What if everything you were afraid of, all the tragedies, catastrophes you had been unable to confront kept coming around again until you learned how to face them?”

“Heartache” and “hopeful” are recurring words that appear in reviews of Meno’s work. “Funny” and “sad” also take up equal space. It’s what he does in each book, artfully balancing these complicated and difficult emotions. I’m especially interested, considering the title of this novel, in two other recurring words in his reviews: “ordinary” and “extraordinary.” This feels like the greatest testament to his work—the ability to find the commonality of experience and then bend it and warp it until we see it in some new way, how closely it resembles our own lives and yet it shines more brightly. 

Aleks, imagining a new symphony, wonders, “To escape all your responsibilities, all the entanglements of family? Where is the musical composition that describes something like that?” Meno, the escape artist, has constructed a novel that does just that.

– Kevin Wilson
Author of Now is Not the Time to Panic

The Music in His Bones Doesn’t Need to be Heard

Beginnings, Endings, and Other Musical Figures by Joe Meno

Begin in F♯ minor with a symphony of ghost notes. Why not a concerto that details every known silence? Or the most noiseless overture in all of history? Let the trumpets go mute and the cymbals be still. Let the lull from the concert hall destroy every awkward moment, every long-standing argument, with cannons raging in unheard fury and the closing note being fireworks exploding soundlessly in the sky, so that everything finally goes quiet. What would Mozart have to say to that? 

Orfeo is booming through the house. I am struggling to do a single pull-up before work. My sister, Isobel, calls and says she is not feeling well and then asks if I can drop off my niece at preschool. I slowly catch my breath and tell her I’ll be there soon. 

I put on my red hat and my winter coat, grab my bicycle, and then pedal toward my sister’s apartment on 95th. I lock my bicycle up and climb the stairs to my sister’s apartment. I make sure my niece is wearing her gold gym shoes and I help her on with her coat. I look over at my sister lying on the couch with her ragged blond hair and can see something in her eyes appears to be off. I ask her: “What’s up?”

“I’m just not feeling so good. Feminine problems.” 

“Like in eighth grade when you wrote a love letter to Patrick Swayze?”

“You’re not funny. You’re almost never funny.” 

With my eyes, I ask, What’s really going on? but she doesn’t answer. So I take my niece’s hand, and then, once we’re outside, I help her onto the front of my bike.

I go faster than anyone with a three-year-old on the handlebars should. It feels like we are flying. A car from the 1980s pulls out in front of us and my niece, Jazzy, laughs and screams at exactly the same time and it is one of my favorite sounds ever, a profound, musical experience, always in D minor. 

When I pull up in front of the dreary-looking day care on 95th, she asks when her mother will be feeling better and I look at her and say I don’t know. I help fix her backpack and then I ask: “What are you going to do today, Jazzy?” and she looks at me fiercely and says, “Run it,” and then walks inside. Other kids move out of her way. I ride off and lose the sound of my gears whirring to the noise of oncoming traffic and wonder what my sister’s expression really means. 

Beginning at the age of three, Isobel and I had our own language, first playing music together—my father installing me in front of the piano, while Isobel, at five, was already playing short pieces by Beethoven on the cello. My father would tilt his head toward her, focused on each and every note, the phrasing, how she held the bow. I, on the other hand, was more than happy to exist only as background noise. 

When I was eight, I had the chance to play before the Jugoslavian ambassador—a friend of the family—who promised to get me into an exclusive conservatory on the East Coast. My father was ecstatic but the dignitary never showed. A snowstorm had created an enormous traffic jam downtown. I sat on a stool on the small stage and stared at my family and music teacher, Mr. Genarro, gathered together in the front row. Even my baby brother Daniel was silent in my mom’s arms. 

On that cold evening, with the wind coming in off the lake, you could hear the doors and windows banging—the opposite of applause. Someone had carved their initials EM on the top of the piano. I imagined all the names that started with E. 

As we waited for the next forty-five minutes, I kept my eyes on Isobel, who never looked away. She mouthed knock-knock jokes and folded a bird out of the program my father had gotten printed. What do you call this other than magic or ESP? In the end my father asked me to play, even though the dignitary was not coming. I did as I was told, placing my fingers above the dull white keys, imagining the paper bird swooping above the empty concert hall, as I glanced up at my sister whenever I could. I don’t know if I ever played that way again. 

I’d do anything in the world for this person is what I’m trying to say. 

I go by the no-name convenience store on the way to work. The same hoods are out front with their conventional, southside Irish-American faces. There are four of them, all in drab green uniforms from the nearby cemetery. The cemetery in Evergreen Park is one of the largest in the western world, stretching on for miles and miles. What does it say about a neighborhood, an entire place, that its biggest claim to fame is that it happens to contain one of the most popular locations to leave your dead? As I open the door to the convenience store, one of the thugs knocks the headphones from my ears.

“Fa, your sister talks about how you’re always listening to music. Come on, let’s hear you sing something.” 

I ignore them and go inside, walking over to the freezers. I grab a bottle of Yoo-hoo. When I come out, someone gets me in a headlock and I immediately remember why I hate this place. 

I’m half deaf. I have to tell you. I have partial hearing loss in both ears. It’s asymmetrical, which means it’s worse in my left. I began losing my hearing when I was ten. I first started missing certain words, then certain notes, then entire frequencies by the age of twelve. In the end, the look of empathetic disappointment on my music teacher’s face was the hardest thing to take. No one knew why or how it happened—if it was from some accident, or from some virus, or was possibly genetic, passed down from generation to generation through my family, alongside mythical stories of Poland and Jugoslavia. 

What does it say about a neighborhood, an entire place, that its biggest claim to fame is that it happens to contain one of the most popular locations to leave your dead?

I don’t know any sign language, I’m embarrassed to admit. I don’t like talking about my hearing loss but it makes it easier when other people know. Most of the time I just pretend to understand what everyone is saying. 

I work at a high school, St. Josaphat, where I once was a student. No one knows this fact but I do. I find it hilarious and also humiliating, depending on the day. I put on my uniform and ignore the misspelling of my name. In the hallways, mop in hand, I make myself invisible. That afternoon, there are some girls from an after-school club hanging out by their lockers. Two of them see me and whisper to each other in ninth-grade French. I think maybe they recognize me as someone who used to have potential but then I remember no one outside my family cares about classical music. These girls are only laughing at a twenty-year-old person talking to himself, mopping the same spot over and over. 

After work, I come home and check on my mother. She has not moved from her bed for the last several days. Ever since she started taking antidepressants a few years ago, she’s been in a dismal haze. I go into our bedroom and find my younger brother, Daniel, drawing in his notebook at the desk. He is thirteen and all he ever does is trace figures from his favorite comics. But in his sketches the superheroes are always doing depressingly real things, like filling out their taxes or crying in the shower. I lean over his shoulder and ask, “What’s this?” 

“Captain America. Going to a movie alone.” 

“Uh-huh. Why is he doing that?” 

“He has a hard time understanding other people.” 

“You did a good job with his expression. It looks like he’s very conflicted.”

Daniel nods proudly, his dark hair falling into his face. I put on a Chopin record from my grandfather then and slip the headphones over my ears.

I almost never tell people the truth of my name. Everyone calls me Aleks, which is short for Wolfgang Amadeus Aleksandar Fa. I am the only person I knew who is Polish and Bosnian on our block or in our neighborhood on the far southside of Chicago. The first and second names came from the child prodigy who began composing symphonies at the age of eight, the third from my grandfather who emigrated from Sarajevo in the middle of the twentieth century, and the last from my father, a Bosnian-American who lives several blocks away but who no one talks to anymore. There are three of us, each named after some important cultural or historical figure: my older sister Isobel, after Isobel Loutit—a famous 20th century female mathematician; myself; and Daniel, who was named in honor of the biblical hero who fought the lions. The circumstance of our ridiculous sounding names and the fact that all of us had been raised by well-meaning pseudo-intellectuals to appreciate books and music made us strangers on our block and in our neighborhood. 

All of our hair had been cut using the same pair of clippers, each of us standing over the sink. Our skin was olive, less pink. We dressed different—like Eastern European immigrants—in out-of-date clothes my mother used to pick up at Goodwill: T-shirts advertising cartoons that were no longer on the air, generic sneakers found in the discount bins at the supermarket. None of us were allowed to use a computer or the Internet outside of school until I was eighteen. No one in the house had access to a cell phone. Our parents had raised us to think of ourselves as extraordinary, as exceptional, had read us poetry in the crib and played classical music each night as we went to sleep. Our bad haircuts and poor clothing choices only exaggerated these differences—zip-up track suits, turtlenecks and vests, floods with off-color socks. In the end, all I wanted was to be left alone, to live in an imaginary world of classical music. 

Isobel stops by the next afternoon and we get slightly high in the backyard, sitting in some icy folding chairs, ignoring the late March snow. We pass a joint back and forth, looking up at the whitening sky. Jazz lies in the snow like she is dead, completely motionless. Isobel turns to me and says: “I’ve been thinking maybe I gave her the wrong name.” 

“You do?” 

“At the time it seemed like a good idea. But now I’m worried no one’s going to take her seriously. Like her only career option will be an exotic dancer.”

“I think her name fits her.” 

We’re silent for a moment and then she says, “It’s worked out for you. Having a unique name.” 

“Look at me. I’m twenty and I don’t have shit. I was hoping to finish community college but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen any time soon.”

Both of us turn and glance over at Jazzy who is rolling back and forth in the snow, laughing to herself like a crazy person. Isobel glances over at me and sighs and then comes out with it: “I think we’re going to be living here a while. Brian and I have been fighting. He’s trying to run my life.”

I look at her for a long time and say, “Isobel, I love you. Are you sure you’re okay?” She looks away, unwilling to answer. Later we all end up lying together in the snow. 

I go to community college because, at the moment, that’s all I can afford. I take all the poetry and music and film classes I can. I have a humanities course, which I am not a fan of. The teacher acts like the twenty-first century has not happened. 

That day in class, the professor explains we will be studying the war in Jugoslavia and the history of Balkanization. I raise my hand and say my grandfather is from Jugoslavia and that I personally have many stories about his life there but the prof looks at me like I have two heads and just keeps going with his lecture. 

Isobel and Jazz move in the following day, taking over the entire basement. I like to wake up and eat cereal across from my niece, as we make obnoxious faces at each other. 

A few nights later, Isobel’s new boyfriend, Billy, comes by. I look at this person across the table and wonder what exactly my sister is doing. Billy tells us that he served overseas in Iraq. In 2008 everyone thought the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be over soon. But that just goes to show you. Isobel’s boyfriend is tall and handsome, has an Irish flag tattooed on his neck, a typical southside hood. A piece of his left ear is missing and the bottom part of his left leg was amputated after he stepped on an IED in Mosul. A year later he began selling the Oxycontin and Vicodin he’d been prescribed. He announces this all with a degree of pride none of us questions. I realize then this is the person my sister has been buying drugs from. 

Later Billy asks if we want to see his leg. My brother and sister look at him, even though he is not the first visitor to come to our house missing a limb. He rolls up his pants and shows us where the lifeless beige plastic meets the scarred remains of his knee. He passes his foot around and he tells us war stories, about Baghdad and the battle of Fallujah. When the foot is passed to me, it’s hard not to feel like you are holding a part of history, the wrong part of history, the part my family always has to contend with. 

Later, after he goes home belligerent and drunk, I look over at Isobel and ask, “Are you serious? What are you doing with that guy?” 

“I like him because I can see what’s wrong with him from a mile away,” she says and exhales cigarette smoke through her nose. 

“You know you’re not supposed to smoke in here. Mom’s sick.” 

“Mom’s been sick a long time. Anyways, who died and left you in charge?”

Both of us laugh because of how funny it isn’t. I realize, in that moment, I’ve given up on my sister, because there’s nothing I can do if she isn’t willing to help herself. I know she says something behind my back but I don’t even hear it. 

At community college the next day, I turn in my humanities essay about the history of Balkanization and the war in Jugoslavia. I worked on the essay all week, pulled quotes from different sources, different articles and wrote the essay in such a way as to show how Bosnia was conquered over and over using different-colored fonts—to make clear how it is a collision of cultures, ideas, and overlapping identities, often in conflict. The prof puts on some film I barely pay attention to while he sits in the back, grading papers. After class he tells me he believes the essay has been plagiarized. 

It goes how I thought it would go: badly. I try to explain to the prof, to the dean, even to his administrative assistant—who writes everything down—that I borrowed the excerpts and built something new, but none of them are having it. I tell them how Stravinsky borrowed the opening of The Rite of Spring from a Russian folksong and how almost all of old school hip-hop is based on sampling. In return, I am told the college has a strict plagiarism policy and that I am to be expelled immediately. I don’t want to blame history but it is hard not to think about how it might have gone if I had written about fencing or soccer, instead of doing something that mattered. But, in that moment, it felt like my need to be seen as clever had once again ruined me. 

When you get kicked out of community college, when you get beat down, who are you going to run to, who are you going to tell? Our wills and fates do so contrary run, that our devices still are overthrown; our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own, or so Shakespeare once said. 

The following day, Isobel calls to say she has to work late and asks if I can please go watch my niece in the school play for Casimir Pulaski Day. I put on my headphones, pull up my hood, and go through my CDs, looking for the right composition. What symphony do you play while riding your wobbly bike across the southside as fast as you can in order to avoid getting jumped?

I go with Rimsky-Korsokov, turn on my Walkman, and take off on the ten-speed. Fortunately, the southside ignores me as I pedal beneath its out-of-date signs, some in English, some in Spanish. I do not get jumped looking like a reject from Eastern Europe. I pull up to the elementary school, lock up my bike, and hurry inside. 

Someone’s mother kindly hands me a Xeroxed program but I’m too nervous to look. I take a seat in the back of the auditorium. A boy dressed as George Washington is kneeling beside a fatally-wounded Casimir Pulaski. Jazzy’s in the background—I think she is supposed to be an owl of some kind, or maybe a bluebird. She stares out at the sea of faces and folds her hands in her armpits while the other kids sing a song about how Casimir Pulaski’s body magically disappeared. I can see Isobel has made Jazz’s costume out of whatever happened to be on hand—wire hangers, a bathrobe. Another song starts and Jazzy begins to dance like she is in a music video, owning the moment in her teal leotard. 

In that moment, it felt like my need to be seen as clever had once again ruined me. 

In the middle of the third song someone in the front row makes a comment about my niece’s lurid dancing. I look around and see my sister is nowhere to be found. I realize then that she hasn’t been able to get off work. I collect Jazzy from the cluster of brightly-dressed kids after the final act and we ride over to Cupid Candies on 95th. Both of us stare at each other from over our bowls of ice cream. 

“You want another?” I ask. 

She shakes her head. Two empty bowls sit before her as she works on a third. I feel glad, suddenly, that I have this time together with my niece. It feels less like a chore and more like a discovery. I realize, over the course of just a few weeks, she’s become my favorite person in the world. 

As we’re riding back home and swerving through traffic, I imagine another short musical composition, like that famous bagatelle by Beethoven, note by note, made entirely of my niece’s laughter. 

When we get back to my mother’s house, Isobel is nowhere to be found. Later, after Jazzy has gone to bed, I see my sister climb out of Billy’s Cutlass, looking tranquil and ridiculous, and know exactly where she’s been. 

At work someone has plugged up all the sinks in the girl’s washroom on the first floor. It takes an hour to clean everything. As I move the mop back and forth, I improvise a sonata, attempting to capture all of my bad feelings. 

I come home from work just as the phone is ringing. I pick it up—it’s my niece Jazz’s preschool teacher saying she has failed a test. I say, “It’s preschool. She’s three years old. I mean she’s still learning,” and the preschool teacher says, No, I think there may be something wrong with her hearing. 

I don’t know about any of this. Isobel is at work at Payless Shoes and so we sit in the back of the house and I put on a record. Jazz is busy with a coloring book. I put the headphones over Jazzy’s ears but she doesn’t seem to notice at first. I watch her as I turn the volume up. It takes awhile before she seems to notice. I can hear the vibrations coming from the headphones before she seems to. I turn the music down and both of sit in the silence, the sound of her hands against the paper the only sound in the world.

When Isobel comes home, I tell her about the phone call and the headphones. She just looks at me and says, “I don’t even know how to deal with this right now.”

I know we don’t have much money for testing, for hearing aids or whatever Jazzy is going to need. But we have to do something because I’m tired of just making do. I read about hearing impairments on the Internet all night. The next morning, I drop Jazz off at preschool, borrowing Daniel’s bike without asking. I watch her climb down from the handlebars and I say, “You go in there and show them what you know. Don’t be afraid. You’re as good as any of them,” but she just gives me a blank look and wanders off into school. 

When I get home from work, I call around to see how much it costs for a hearing test without insurance. One place says three hundred, another tells me two-fifty. But we don’t have anything close to that. 

I look under my brother’s bed the next day and find in a blue shoebox that he has one hundred and fifty dollars hidden beside a notebook that lists all the classic comic books he’s been saving up for. As I’m counting the money, he comes in and tears the money out of my hand. 

“What are you doing?” he shouts. 

“This is for Jazzy. She needs money for a hearing test.” 

“This is for Fantastic Four #4. I’ve been saving up for it for eight months. You can’t just come in here and take my money.” 

“Would you have given it to me if I asked?”

He is quiet for a moment and then shakes his head, “No. Probably not.” He scratches the side of his nose and adds, “I happen to like the Fantastic Four a lot more than my family.” 

He takes the money out of my hands and shoves it back into the box.

I go by my cousin Benny’s and ask for a loan. He says he doesn’t have any cash on hand but offers me a handful of balloons he has stolen from a funeral home. All of the balloons read “Condolences.” I tie them to the handlebars of my bicycle and feel the front tire trying to leave the ground. 

I go by my grandfather’s apartment on Cicero to ask if he can help pay for Jazzy’s hearing test, but he does not answer the door. I can hear him inside playing the cello, his fingers struggling to find the right notes, but no matter how hard I knock, he does not answer. I realize this is how he has survived for so long. I keep on knocking until, finally, he opens the door. He stares at me for a moment as if trying to place where he has seen me before and then waves me inside with a frown. 

“Ah, Grandson. Let me get a look at you.” He pauses and then nods. “Oh yes. Of course. I recognize that look. I’ve seen it many times before.” 

“I came to ask…” 

“You must know I was forced to escape Communist Jugoslavia when I was only a young man of twenty-one. I packed everything I owned into a single suitcase and snuck across the border, never to see my parents or older sister again. I did all of this on my own. Eventually all of us are forced to choose our own fate.” 

I look at him and nod and then he murmurs: “I apologize but there will be no handouts for anybody.” 

As I am riding back I think of another amazing composition: Why not a concerto that describes the shape of the Big Bang or all of human history? Why not a symphony of only beginnings, with the instruments having to start over and over, one that goes on forever, something that captures the feeling of being trapped by fate only to suddenly break free? To escape all your responsibilities, all the entanglements of family? Where is the musical composition that describes something like that? 

When I get home there is an envelope of money on the counter in the kitchen. Inside is one hundred and fifty dollars. I go upstairs and find Daniel at his desk, organizing his comics once again. I ask, “Is this from your comic, the one you were saving for?” and he nods once shyly. 

“I also sold some of my X-Men,” he says. “Never liked the artwork.”

I lean over, give him a kiss on the back of his head, and he pushes me away, shouting wildly. I look through some of my old records and do the same, going by a couple record stores, selling whatever I can. In the end, it’s close to two hundred, which is enough to qualify for the payment plan. 

On a Wednesday, I bring Jazzy in for a hearing test. It’s not great news. We sit in a soundproof room and the audiologist makes sure there are no obstructions in my niece’s ears, then she places a pair of headphones over Jazz’s ears and plays a variety of tones. Later she asks Jazz to repeat a series of words that come through the headphones, but my niece only says one or two. We get shuffled to an exam room and the doctor—who is old, ancient in a safe white lab coat—explains something to us called autosomal recessive hearing loss and how her hearing loss is possibly genetic and most likely permanent and then discusses how hearing aids or implants would work and gives us answers to questions I hadn’t even thought to ask. 

I stay up all night on the Internet looking for information on how to learn ASL and decide even though I have been avoiding it for a long time, I will do this one small thing for my niece. I replay the video over and over until my eyes go blurry. 

In the morning I drop Jazzy off at preschool and feel the entire world shift as she hops from the front end of my bike. I immediately miss the weight of her on the handlebars. I hold my hand out and show her the sign for good, by placing the fingers of my right hand against my lips, then dropping my hand into my left palm. She looks away, ignoring me. 

“Jazzy,” I say, “look.” 

I do it again and again until she glances back at me. I repeat the sign a fourth time and finally, unhappily, begrudgingly, she repeats the gesture before turning away and hurrying into preschool. When I ride off, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I have the feeling anything might happen.

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