The Miles Tape Hypothesis

Alexandra Zobel

First-Prize Winner
2009 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest

He’d rather discuss the stack of LPs on the coffee table, the differences between bop and modal, the transcendence of sitting in a blue dark, wreathed with smoke, while a man makes love to a saxophone, whose promises come full throttle into the world and die on the same breath. But instead he looks at the camera and says, “Hello, Miles.”

It began with a simple idea: tape the major events from the year their first child would be born. In practice it’s different. This is the first time Evan has spoken to his hypothetical son without his ear pressed against the firming gibbous of Sylvie’s belly. He glances over his shoulder in a parody of school-boy guilt. They haven’t discussed names yet; they don’t even know the gender. Behind him the room is unremarkable with few loud improvisations on a theme that’s largely beige. There’s the occasional laughter of dishes in the background. The impromptu christening is presumptuous, yes, but they’ve already missed a few events, and he was rushed and it just came out. With ten minutes before liftoff, Evan is summarizing January for the camcorder that’s propped on top of the television.

“. . . and da Bears won the Bowl. Now let’s talk music. Current Trends in Racism is noteworthy for Butch Morris’s experiments with conduction—”

“MLK Jr.,” says a voice from the kitchen.

“That’s your mother.” Eyes roll. “Always the activist. She’s refer ring to our new holiday: Martin Luther King Day. She’s wild about MLK—”

“And who was MLK?” He sighs.

 

“MLK was . . .” Sylvie is laughing with Her Kidself in the kitchen. The camera won’t pick this up, neither will her husband. They’re on good terms for the most part, Sylvie and Her Kidself. Her Kidself has a sense of humor now and—yes, Sylvie agrees—it is funny how things turned out, how things are. Sylvie’s husband, whom Her Kidself finds hilarious, is talking to their child—a son named Miles, apparently. Hilarious.

“He’ll be like us,” Sylvie says during a pause in the laughter. Her Kidself doesn’t quite get her meaning. “You know, so close to his past. If he watches that video, he’ll see himself every time I cross the frame. So close to his ante-self.” Her Kidself nods, and touches Sylvie’s arm gently. This is followed by insane laughter. Sylvie can see all Her Kidself ‘s yet-to-be crowned molars.

 

Evan’s looking past the camera, his eyes following the dwindling ellipsis into the distance. Their project is essentially journalism: to record the live broadcasts of the Great Events of 1986. But here he is on the verge of exegesis, about to interpret the world. What if he gets it wrong? He’d really rather talk about the significant jazz albums of 1986. The only thing he knows about MLK is that Billy Strayhorn composed a rag for him back in the day.

 

Her Kidself could be a real bitch sometimes. True, she had lightened up since her sincerely radical days, but she had no reason to be upset still. Sure, Sylvie had married. Yes, she had slipped into the domestic rhythm. “But at least he’s interested in culture,” she offered.

Silence from Her Kidself.

“He’s interested in music.”

“Are you referring to the night he wooed you over Miles Davis? Sylvie, child, tell me you’re not.” She knows full well how it insults Sylvie to be called a child, by Her Kidself nonetheless. “‘Doubtless they rehearsed Mulligan’s arrangement for weeks. Imagine the outtakes of them trying to nail that twelve-bar bridge.’ You ate it up.”

This is why Sylvie has a hard time talking with Her Kidself. She is not fair. “I know what you’re saying/’ she says to Her Kidself. “And I think you’re wrong.”

“Please. Your idealism is so pragmatic.”

“You make it sound like I married The Man.”

“Oh sure, Evan’s a real bohemian—an excitable law student with a serious interest in jazz, a fair-weather Democrat who thinks MLK was on the fringe.”

“He was, at the time.”

“You would’ve never said that before.”

“Before what?” Sylvie has to distance herself from Her Kidself when she gets this way. Sylvie likes to think her radicalism has always been half ironic, that it has been a part of her wardrobe, that it was silly and experimental from the start. Her Kidself knows better.

 

A smile seizes his face, and for the first time he’s either self-conscious about talking to the camera or he is understanding what fatherhood is. Whispering under the sheets to his wife’s waxing abdomen had become a new game for them, an apostrophe that often digressed into foreplay, but this is new. He has no idea what to say, but does it matter? Miles is a persona rasa with no experiences of his own and no cause to doubt him yet. A tabula rasa, ripe for writing. This isn’t self-consciousness; it’s vertigo and it’s thrilling. He looks through the camera and riffs. “See, MLK was a great speaker. Or he had a good speech writer. But it’s more fum to think of him pulling Ί have a dream’ out of thin air like some kind of prophet-poet.” He is playing by ear now, talking out of his ass, and referencing the few things he’s heard about this MLK character.

As he concludes, he’s rather impressed with himself. A budding rhetorician—OK, a law student—and a jazz fan, Evan knows the value of eloquent improvisation, and he was convincing, he thinks. He approaches the television. There are the plastic sounds of the VCR mechanically swallowing a tape. “Now on to our live broadcast. Still a few minutes until liftoff.” The screen is full of his clavicle as he reaches behind the camera and that’s the end.

• •

If their daughter—their only child together whose name had nothing to do with jazz, but was a spur-of-the-moment nod to a long dead relative on Sylvie’s sidE—watched the Miles tape, she would regard her mother as hopelessly boring, permeated by status quo, and hemmed in by her household routine. Look at her, chiming in from the background, washing dishes, of course. The girl wouldn’t be scandalized by her father’s hope for the son that would not materialize until his third marriage, but by the obvious mismatch of a man too obsessed with spontaneity and his future to remain faithful to a woman of past and pattern. Mostly she would feel a misplaced nostalgia upon seeing a haphazard arrangement that is at once foreign and, strangely, a fact of her life. They should have never attempted this performance. But she would never watch the preface to the Great Events of 1986, or the first and last event in that series. If she didn’t see the Miles tape, she would see the footage in 2003 after the Columbia disintegrated across the sky on several stuttering camcorders. As news anchors reminded us of another shuttle tragedy, she would see the distending coils of rocket fuel, the sudden tining of the contrail, the white trail dissipating even as it declared itself against the sky; she would see Christa McAuliffe’s parents squinting up into the bright January cold, confused by the slow descent earthward.

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