Alain Bontemps | Alan’s Extra Room | The Rorschach Painting | Goodtime Voice-O-Matic | The Siege of Calais | I Owe My Life to Alan Goodtime | The Alton Arsenal | The Death of Alan Goodtime (other stories in the arc)
The smell of freshly polished wood and the soft, happy twangs of someone picking on an acoustic always take me back to my childhood home in the Adirondack Mountains. I don’t get much of the former in my current postage stamp-sized apartment in the Sunnyside district of New York, so I tried to spend as much of my time as possible in the workshop space I had rented with my best friend Alice. She had found an old Voice-O-Graph record making machine during the most recent of her weekly excursions to one of the myriad of antique shops in Manhattan. With our pooled funds, we could afford to buy the machine, but not to restore it. We explained our hesitation to the sharply dressed, pistachio-fueled owner of the shop, who agreed to cut the cost in half if we shared one-third of our first two years’ profits with him. We jumped at the opportunity.
As I rubbed linseed oil into the tan and deep red cherry wood, enjoying the strain of muscles in my back and the fragrant, homey scent of the finisher, I began to detect another, more acrid smell in the air. I stopped polishing, stood to stretch my spine, and popped out one of my ear buds. The record burning tray was spinning up to the full-bodied reverberating whir that signified a record being made. That didn’t seem right; Alice had left the machine plugged in after testing some of the electronics she had been working on before stepping out for lunch, but it had been turned off. Moreover, I had been outside the booth the entire time and the only way a record could be made was from inside. Sure enough, a warm vinyl disc slid into the receiving tray in a few moments.
I looked inside the booth. Everything was off. No lights, no EQ meters flickering when I snapped my fingers. Strange.
I held the record up to the light to see if it was an accidental pressing with no sound on it; maybe there was a short somewhere. The grooves warbled like they should with an actual auditory signal. Did the machine turn itself on and record my polishing and humming? I decided to find out.
The Voice-O-Graph was made in the 50s to record three minute novelty vinyls. Most of the machines were clustered around New York and Chicago, usually in the shopping districts or near train stations and airports. Families typically used them to record simple greetings, jokes, and Christmas carols to play for their friends or send out as holiday cards. Some enterprising musicians recorded a few demo songs and headed to the nearby offices of Atlantic and Capitol to hit their big break. Recently, Jack White had restored one and set it up in Nashville. Apparently, he was turning a tidy profit from visitors. Even Neil Young had fallen victim to the novelty and recorded an entire album from inside the Nashville Voice-O-Graph booth. I had been looking for a way to diversify my income – session musician doesn’t pay as well as it used to – when Alice found our beautiful marvel of mid-20th century ingenuity. We planned to set ours up on a street corner in Manhattan to try to capture some history. And a few bucks.
I set the freshly pressed record onto the turntable I had left in our rented space and set the needle. Silence. And then, starting quietly, a snare drum? Or maybe a tambourine?
No! It was raspy breathing. I guessed it could have been mine as the work of rubbing oil into wood was surprisingly hard. I knew I was winded. I kept waiting for my humming to start, but it never did. Instead, as the record neared the end of its three-minute duration, a voice said, simply, “Oh, no.”
It was absolutely not my voice.
I scoffed. Weird. Maybe the machine had stored one of its last recordings and only now got around to pressing it.
Right then, Alice walked in the front door with a bag of lunch a pair of coffees from Culture Espresso around the corner. The skill I lacked in restoring our piece of recording history with the knowledge of furniture construction I learned from my father, she more than made up for with her Master’s Degree in electrical engineering. I had no doubt the two of us could get the Voice-O-Graph in better shape than it had been when it rolled off the production line.
I caught myself staring at her a little longer than I should have and tried to cover it up with a fake sneeze. Alice had been my best friend since high school, but I had never been content with merely being a friend from the first time I talked to her. I couldn’t even begin to count the number of nights I had fallen asleep thinking of kissing her soft, crimson-dyed lips. She was dating some guy from a different school when we first met and I had been waiting for the perfect time to ask her out. No moment ever seemed completely right, though, and then – somehow – I realized I’d been waiting for almost twelve years. Like I’d been doing for more than a decade, I pushed the dream of Alice and I being together out of my mind and got back to the day at hand.
“Hey, Al, got a question for you. The thing dropped a record out while I was working. It was definitely not a recording of me singing to myself and rubbing my wood. Any chance it’s, like, clearing its memory or something?”
She chuckled at my lewd comment, but shook her head. “No. That thing doesn’t have a memory. It’s all analog. If it had memory, it would be the size of a midtown two-bedroom. You sure it wasn’t you?”
“Yeah.” I threw my oily rag onto the linseed oil bottle near the wall. “It was off the whole time. I checked.”
Alice screwed up her face in confusion and told me it wasn’t possible. I played the record for her. She listened curiously until the male voice on the recording spoke. Then she laughed heartily.
“You got me, Kit! I thought it was real at first. I should have known when you made your joke. Is this supposed to be somebody who got caught rubbing oil into their oak?”
I protested and tried to claim my innocence, but she wouldn’t buy it. I had played too many pranks on her over the years. We continued working to the sound of Ledbelly on my turntable, Alice humming to herself while I tried to think of ways to convince her the recording was genuine.
Our Golden Age blues gave way to modern electro-funk and the last golden rays of the spring sun fizzled out of existence over the Atlantic. The long day of sanding and polishing and, in Alice’s case, soldering sixty year old circuit boards back from the grave like an electrical necromancer had gotten to us. We started cleaning up our workspace when the Voice-O-Graph hummed to life again. Like before, the booth remained dark, the only sign of activity coming from the device that etched the warm plastic. A black disc slid slowly into the brass receptacle near a bundle of record sleeves. I picked it up by the edges and examined the grooves again while I waited for it to cool. This record, like the previous, contained some sort of signal. Without speaking, I took the record to the turntable. Alice followed.
For a few seconds, we heard nothing but the scratch of the needle on an unpressed groove and the occasional pop as the needle tracked over a bit of dust or an imperfection in the plastic. The raspy breathing from the first record began without warning, making both of us jump. Faintly and muffled, as if from another room, gruff voices with a stereotypical Bronx accent floated to us from the speaker of the turntable. The speech was unintelligible at first but, as the voices approached the recording source, they became clearer.
“Come on out, Sammy! You gonna stay in your box all night?”
A second voice chuckled once, without humor. “Yeah, you like wooden boxes, we can set you up with a coffin real quick. What say you step out and we show you?”
The raspy breathing became a chant that alternated between a whispered “no” and a slightly more audible mantra of “oh, shit”.
The recording, the volume of which I had turned up in order to make out the jumble of whispers and muffled threats, exploded with a crashing thud. Alice and I jumped again, both reaching for the volume knob.
“You scared, Sammy? How long you think it’ll take us to break through this wood, eh?” the first voice called.
The recording ran out to a series of blows, some tinged with the unmistakable sound of splintering wood. I recalled the state the Voice-O-Graph had been in when we found it; one side looked like it had been hit by a truck. I had had to replace the entire panel with new cherry. Had we just listened to the destruction of the Voice-O-Graph?
I looked at Alice for a few seconds, studying her face, trying to decide if she would think I was crazy if I asked my question aloud before I spoke.
“Come here,” I said, motioning for her to follow me into the shop. I walked over to the pile of unsalvageable wood I had taken off the machine. I tossed aside a few pine spacer pieces and pulled out what had been one corner of the Voice-O-Graph. It looked like it had been hit by a truck; large dents where something forceful had compressed the wood were ringed with areas the wood had exploded outward in toothpick-sized shards.
“I thought this was something else,” I gestured with my free hand to the piece I propped up. “A drunk pimp wiped it out with his Caddy in the 70s, a forklift in a scrapyard drove a little too close. But the sound at the end of that recording… It could be this.” Alice’s face remained skeptical. “Someone bashing this corner makes more sense than a car. There are too many damaged spots in too many different places for anything else. I think that’s what we’re hearing.”
“But, Kit, I told you that thing doesn’t have memory. How could we be hearing that?”
“Maybe somebody threw some RAM in it in the 80s or something.”
“No. I’ve been all over the electronics in that thing. There is no memory. The record heats up, then the ‘AIR’ light comes on. Once that light comes on, you have 3 minutes and the record’s done. There’s no rewind, no pause. Just analog.”
I dropped it for the night. We went out for Chinese in Manhattan and then I headed out to Sunnyside. We worked that way for about another week until the Voice-O-Graph was ready to make its public debut. I thought something near Times Square would be a good place if we could convince someone to let us set it up. I called the antique shop owner to get his input and see if he might know someone who could help us out. The number rang through to an actual message machine, which took me back to my childhood. I left a quick message and got back to my day.
The next day, a bike messenger delivered a sealed envelope that – aside from its pristine coloring – looked like it could have come from the 1800s. A piece of thick cardstock with grey fibers strewn throughout sat inside the envelope. I unfolded it to find the most pristine and painstakingly beautiful handwriting I had ever seen, which read:
“Dearest Kit and Alice,
I am ever so pleased to hear the great news! I must apologize for the difficulty in contacting me yesterday; I’m having the shop remodeled and I’ve found myself out of my office more than usual. I am more than fine with anything the two of you decide as far as pricing and advertising. In addition, I’ll happily reimburse you for any advertising costs you incur – within reason, of course. I must insist, however, that we place the Voice-O-Graph near the corner of 49th Street and Park Avenue instead of near Carnegie Hall. I hope that doesn’t inconvenience you too much, and I hope that when I tell you there’s historical significance to that location, you’ll agree with my decision.
Let me know if I can do anything for you!
I had no problem with Alan’s demand and, while she seemed a little miffed about losing the location she had chosen, the prospect of free advertising outweighed any negative feelings on Alice’s part. I was curious about the historical significance, however. When my call to Alan’s shop about the history of the corner near the Waldorf Astoria went answered for days, I decided to jump online and try to figure it out myself. We had set up the Voice-O-Graph in its new location by that time and I hadn’t managed to land any session gigs, so I had ample free time.
It took some digging, but I finally found a mention of the Voice-O-Graph near the Astoria on some cludgy little local historical society’s website. The writing staff focused on the machine and the ingenuity of a generation now lost to time and rest homes, but the captions beneath the poorly cropped newspaper photos told a different story; the Voice-O-Graph had been the stage for an attempted gangland hit. Beyond the paltry and incomplete information in the captions, I couldn’t find mention of the crime or that particular Voice-O-Graph anywhere. Just one of the countless pieces of mostly trivial information that had never been uploaded to the internet. I decided to go old school and head to the New York Public Library for their microfiche collection. I was able to pull a date – June 22, 1956 – from one of the photos, so I assumed the search wouldn’t be too daunting; just a check of all the available newspapers from that date.
I was wrong, mostly because I had underestimated the collection of newspapers at the Sunnyside Branch of the Queens Library. I had to catch a train into Manhattan and head to the Science Library. Once there, though, I had to figure out how to navigate the library’s “digital microform” collection. It had been dark for hours when I finally found the article from deep in the middle of the Friday edition of The Villager. It was a short, one column story:
“**Man Nearly Killed in Botched Midtown Attack**
Late Thursday night, Samuel Nussbaum of Lenox Hill was accosted by two Sicilian gangster types who chased Nussbaum through the alleys near the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Mr. Nussbaum took refuge in a novelty recording machine while his assailants terrorized him and attempted to break into Nussbaum’s refuge. Once successful in prying open the door behind which Mr. Nussbaum hid, the gangsters produced a firearm and shot Nussbaum twice. The gangsters then fled on foot in the direction of Central Park.
It seems that Mr. Nussbaum’s quick thinking may have spared him his life, as the racket created by the repeated attempts to break into the recording booth prompted several hotel guests to phone the police. Police report seeing a figure in the booth with Mr. Nussbaum as they approached, possibly rendering aid. Police Commissioner Kennedy has asked that the person aiding Mr. Nussbaum come forward as they may have information that could lead to the arrest of the alleged Sicilian mobsters. It is unclear what the motive for the attack was, though detectives believe it may have been related to robbery or extortion as Mr. Nussbaum is a well-to-do member of the community.”
I wasn’t consciously aware of it while I was reading, but as soon as I finished the last paragraph I realized I was half-standing, half-crouching above my chair in excitement. There were too many coincidences. Simply too many. The attack in the article *had* to be what Alice and I were hearing in the vinyls that dropped out of the Voice-O-Graph. I printed out the article, a task that – from standing in line to get my print card to picking up the warm legal sheet – took about twenty minutes. Alice called my cell just as I was bounding jauntily down the stone steps in front of the library, feeling pleased with myself.
“Kit, hey. I just went to pick up the cash from the recorder.” I tried to respond to this, ask how much we had made, but the momentum in her voice steamrolled right over my question. “Another record dropped while I was pulling out some loose bills.”
“Oh! Great! Let me make a prediction; on this recording, we’ll hear two gunshots.”
“Kit, don’t be weird. This is kind of scary.”
“Al, I agree. I almost shit my pants when I listened to the first one. But we can have some fun with it. It’ll make it less, I don’t know, ominous. Besides, I think I might know what’s going on.
“Listen, I’m at the Science Library in the city. Why don’t I grab some Mississippi Mud and head to your place. We can listen to the record tonight.”
Alice agreed, though we drank our way through the entire growler of Mississippi Mud and a four pack of Boddington’s before she felt like playing the record. She was legitimately frightened; I could see the delicate hair on her arms stand up as she pulled the needle to the outside groove. It started where the previous had left off: loud, splintering crashes of metal against wood. The crashes gave way to breaking glass and creaking. I could only assume the latter sound was the brass hinges feeling the stress of the mobsters prying open the door to the Voice-O-Graph booth.
It was silent for a brief moment before one of the gangsters spoke up casually, as if the three men were having beers in a sports bar. “Hey, Sammy, chew on this,” followed by two loud gunshots, physical manifestations of the finality of his sentence.
We heard footsteps walk quickly away over broken glass, which were soon drowned out by a thick gurgling, punctuated by wet coughs. We listened to Nussbaum’s labored breathing, neither of us looking at the other, staring down at the spinning record. And then, with a sharp intake of breath, like he was getting ready to go underwater, Nussbaum stopped breathing. The record played out its final minute in complete silence.
Alice looked at me with tears in her eyes. “Did we just listen to a man die?”
It sure fucking sounded like it. I shook my head. “No. It shouldn’t be.” I pulled the newspaper printout from my pocket, unfolded it, and showed it to her. “This is what we’re hearing; I’m sure of it. It says the guy – this Sammy guy – lives. Paramedics find him in time.”
She read through the article and seemed to calm down some. Her shoulders fell from the tense, drawn-back position they had been in to a more relaxed hang. She wiped her eyes.
“Why did Alan want us to put the recorder back in that spot? Isn’t that weird? Isn’t that morbid?”
I had completely forgotten about Alan and his insistence on placing the Voice-O-Graph in that location, even though it had been the catalyst for my search. I had gotten caught up in my own detective work. Alice was right, though; it was weird.
We spent the rest of the night watching dumb comedies on Netflix. Alice fell asleep before I did, her head shifting slowly to rest on my shoulder. I was achingly thirsty from so much alcohol, but I didn’t want to move out of that perfect position. Eventually, I fell asleep, too.
I woke to find Alice already off the couch and in the shower. I considered leaving before she got out to avoid the awkwardness that might have crept up from spending the night together. I decided spending a little time apart would reset out friendship and started gathering my things when she walked out of the bathroom, dressed and ready for the day. She wore a shirt I remembered from years ago during college; an old VR Troopers shirt from my childhood that I had cherished and outgrown. She stole it from me in freshman year. It was worn thin and fit her more snugly than her usual clothes, in a good way.
“Breakfast?” she asked.
Either she didn’t feel the tension between us that I did or she was ignoring it. Fine. Better than avoiding each other until everything faded. We hit up the Eggs Travaganza food truck on Park and then caught an early movie at Alice’s suggestion. I knew she had work to do before the week began the next day, but she didn’t seem to care. We spent the entire day together.
Around 9, we decided to pick up the day’s earnings from the Voice-O-Graph. A fourth record dropped out of the slot as we walked away. I had been silently wishing we wouldn’t find one that night; the day was perfect, I hated to sour it with the pall of Nussbaum’s attack. We took the record back to Alice’s place again. This record, all 3 minutes, was almost entirely silent. I would have assumed it was blank save for the occasional roar of a car motor in the distance and a ship horn that carried in from the harbor.
When the needle clicked and returned to its off position, Alice pulled out her phone. A few second later, she held it out to me so I could see the screen.
“Brain damage after 5 minutes without oxygen. This guy hasn’t been breathing for four. What the fuck do we keep listening to, Kit?”
“It says 5 to 10. I bet the paramedics show up in the next recording.”
“I hope so. I don’t trust Alan, Kit. I don’t know how the recorder is storing these files, but they come out exactly when we’re around. Why hasn’t one dropped during the day and been picked up by someone? We have enough cash that we can assume an almost steady stream of people through the damn thing!” she pointed to the envelope on the table, bulging with singles. “I think he’s fucking with us. Maybe he wants us to think it’s haunted and back out. Then he gets a restored Voice-O-Graph for free.”
“Maybe,” I said. I didn’t ask Alice how she thought Alan could have known I’d find the article about Nussbaum. I didn’t ask her how he could have been making the records drop; she didn’t find any sort of modern electronics in the entire cabinet. From the look on her face, I didn’t need to say any of those things; she was already thinking them. But speaking them would make them real, and I didn’t want to make her worry until we knew more about what was going on. Or there was a real reason to worry.
We both slept on Alice’s couch again. That night, she put her head on my shoulder before she fell asleep.
The next day brought another recording. I walked to the Voice-O-Graph early, while Alice was still at work, to spare her the shock of finding it herself. Alice had given me a key to her place, but I didn’t feel right walking in and using her phonograph. I also didn’t feel right about taking the train all the home before I could listen to it. That last one was more impatience than anything else. So I went to the shop where Alice and I had worked on the Voice-O-Graph. The owner, Joseph, was a cool guy. He was more into hip hop than rock, so he wasn’t familiar with any of my work, but we connected over funk. I had let him showcase his beatboxing skills during a couple tests of the Voice-O-Graph before we set it up. Joseph’s shop was also near Midtown and had an old record player in the break room. He was in, adding some decals to his car, and didn’t mind listening to the record with me.
It started quietly and I started to fear it would be a replay of the last record; three minutes listening to a dead man lying on the floor of my Voice-O-Graph. Soon, though, we began to hear footsteps rapidly approach and then crunch on broken glass. A voice – definitely feminine, though lowered with age – spoke into the silence. It was gibberish; all hard consonants and phlegmy noises. With that single phrase, the woman was finished speaking. We could hear the whine of her breath through her obstructed noise and discern when she shifted her weight due to crunching of broken glass.
Finally, sirens began to wail in the distance and draw near. They sounded like they were a block away from the microphone when a second person inhaled sharply, almost painful sounding. The second breather – maybe Nussbaum? – gulped air like a pearl diver coming from too far down.
“You’re alright,” the woman’s voice said. Then, immediately, and with a speed that didn’t match her frail voice, her footsteps retreated from where Nussbaum lay. The police sirens, that odd nasal whine of old emergency vehicles, blasted through the speaker of Joseph’s turntable, followed by screeching tires and shouting voices.
“We got a man down here! Get the ambulance!”
“Secure the area! Make sure those bastards don’t get away!”
“Get in that hotel and find the wit-”
The recording ended, cutting off the last word. The paramedics did finally come. Good. I knew I would have to tell Alice about the recording eventually. I didn’t want to break it to her that we had heard a man die.
“That was weird, man,” Joseph said behind me.
“Yeah, we’ve been finding a few of those. They’re pretty weird.”
“No, man, I don’t think you… Are you Jewish?” Joseph asked.
“Nah. Not anything, really.”
“Me neither, but my parents are. My brother’s a rabbi. That weird shit the woman said, it was Aramaic.”
I shrugged my ignorance.
“Aramaic the language. What Jesus spoke!” Joseph could see it meant nothing to me and moved on. “A modern version of Aramaic is used in some Jewish writings, but a lot of the older words are the same. You pick up some words on Sundays, you know. Anyway, she said ‘Tal qum,’ which is Jesus is supposed to have said to that zombie guy.” He thought for a second, snapping his fingers when the name came to him. “Lazarus!”
“Oh,” I said, “that is weird.”
“Especially because that dude seemed to wake up after she said it. Kinda freaky.”
I hadn’t realized that. Nussbaum did start breathing again after the woman spoke to him. I had no way of knowing what else she was doing at the time, though. She may have been giving him CPR. It wasn’t necessarily the words. They were just words.
I went back to Alice’s place and waited for her. I wanted to tell her Nussbaum lived, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to bring up the woman. No need to get into anything weird. I wondered if I was keeping the cat in the bag to spare Alice the scare or me.
A knock on the door startled me out of my thoughts. I looked at the clock on my phone; Alice could have been home about then, but why would she knock on her own door? To see if I was there? Should I have come over, or was it weird? I tried to come up with an excuse for being there beyond “just wanted to hang out” as I walked to the door.
Looking back at me from the other side of the peephole, however, was not Alice. Alan Goodtime stood a few feet back from the door, smiling serenely at me as if he could see right through the door. I usually got a friendly vibe from him, but there was something distinctly sinister about his knowing smirk. I opened the door anyway.
“Kit, hello,” Goodtime said, pushing his way inside without my invitation. “I understand the Voice-O-Graph has been producing some odd recordings.”
I hesitated before answering. How did he know? Did Alice call his shop? “Uh, yeah. They –“
“Do you have them here?” he interrupted, looking around Alice’s apartment.
I led Goodtime into the back listening/reading nook in which Alice’s vintage turntable sat in a place of reverence. All the Voice-O-Graph records, save for the first one I had taken home with me, were stacked on a small side table. I picked up the stack and lifted the turntable lid.
“Do you want to hear them?”
“Are the last two recordings there?” Goodtime asked, ignoring my question entirely. His strange, uncharacteristic aloofness had melted into something else, something hungry. He looked at the records the way a wolf might eye a dripping steak. The way a drunken old letch leered at young girls with short skirts and low tops coming out of clubs in SoHo.
“Yeah, they’re here,” I said.
“Good! Good. I’ll need to borrow these from you. I’d like to make a digital copy of each and stitch them together. You can drop by in a few days if you’d like to pick them up.”
The second I spoke my assent, Goodtime nodded and rushed toward the door. I wasn’t entirely convinced he hadn’t started moving before I spoke. He was about to pull the door open when he paused and spoke to me over his shoulder.
“Have you listened to the last one? Had someone spoken in a language you didn’t understand?”
“Yes. How did you kn-“
“What did it sound like?” Goodtime interrupted again.
“Uh, ‘tall’ something. ‘Tall coom,’ I think.”
“’Tal qum?’” he asked.
“Yeah, that was it.”
At that, he continued out the door, muttering to himself something about ‘she was right’. I stood in Alice’s living room for a few minutes, trying to make sense of Alan’s strange behavior and trying to decide if I should leave the apartment before Alice got home.
I took too long in deciding. Alice’s keys scratched against the wooden door just as I was gathering my things to leave. She stepped in with one of those faux Mason jars filled with strawberry moonshine and a cardboard takeout box in hand.
“Hey!” Alice said through a large smile that stretched her red-painted lips and showed off her perfectly white teeth. “I was hoping you’d be here! Have you eaten? I brought wings.”
We ate wings and fell asleep on the couch again, warmed from the moonshine. The next night, we went on an official date. From that point, we’ve scarcely been apart. When I finally thought to head over to Goodtime’s shop to pick up the records and check out the digital recording he wanted to make, the shop was gone. I checked my GPS for shops named “All In Good Time” in Manhattan, then all of New York. Nothing. I called his number and was met with a disconnected signal.
I have yet to hear from him, though – as he promised – Goodtime has been paying our Voice-O-Graph advertising bills indefinitely.
Alain Bontemps | Alan’s Extra Room | The Rorschach Painting | Goodtime Voice-O-Matic | The Siege of Calais | I Owe My Life to Alan Goodtime | The Alton Arsenal | The Death of Alan Goodtime (other stories in the arc)