The Cassette Seller
by Lorie Broumand
It’s strange to think that if I were someone else, I’d want to be someone else — specifically that someone else that I was. I’m the sort of person who wants only my own face, even though that face is unsightly, because it’s my face; and the sort of person who wants to be sitting in a cubicle entering dates into a spreadsheet, because that’s where I am, sitting in my cubicle entering dates, even though it’s miserable. I guess it’s a trick of the brain, keeping me unfailingly convinced of the rightness of being me. When I think about it this way, I realize maybe Harry isn’t as arrogant as he seems, even though he’s always talking about how glad he is that he’s who he is. “I certainly wouldn’t want to be anyone else,” he said to me exactly last month, gleaming, all shiny-cheeked and pink. When I saw him two weeks ago he was wearing a wooly hat and looking really sharp, and I told him he looked sharp, and he said, “I try.” He said it like he wanted me to know he doesn’t try at all — that, in fact, it comes naturally to him, like his brilliance. But even though it’s true Harry may be only a normal amount of arrogant, he always seems hands-down arrogant to me. Two weeks ago I moved along quickly because I didn’t want to hear about his woolly hat or how he tries to look sharp when I know he doesn’t have to. But that doesn’t mean the situation is easy.
I got myself involved because I didn’t recognize that the man giving out cassette tapes downtown was Harry. I’d known Harry years ago and his cleverness tired me out even then. I picture him at that age (I believe we were eight the year he moved into the house near mine, and nearly fourteen when he moved out) as a bulky child in a blue rubber raincoat. There was a lot of rain during that time, but I think the blue part was actually someone else — some other rash child of similar proportions who once collected stones with me in my backyard. Or maybe I’m the bulky blue child, and it was me all along in those memories. I had a blue rubber raincoat, so it’s possible.
But one thing I’m sure is that he was forever spinning tales and proposing plans, when all that interested me were sandwiches and lemonade. Everyone’s moms and dads thought he was great, a real talent, they just didn’t know yet what that meant. We’d sit up in my room, him working on something, me adrift; and then he’d leave in a flurry of excitement over his discovery (something to do with sports or crafts or electronics or anything at all) and I’d take a nap from the misery of it.
As adults we’d run into each other occasionally at the library. I’d have gone in to use the restroom, while he’d be sitting there with all those books.
Suffice to say if I’d recognized him, I wouldn’t have stopped.
But ten years had gone by since we’d last seen each other and he was just a man giving out cassettes downtown, all covered over by a beard and a big coat, a pair of sunglasses obscuring the vexing quality of his left eye. It was Saturday and I didn’t want to be out and I didn’t feel like going home and I didn’t notice the pompous lift of his chin. There was music playing from a portable cassette player. The farmer’s market was wrapping up and shoppers in colorful woven clothing dallied on the sidewalks, exactly where I was trying to get through, and exactly where Harry was giving out cassettes. It was early fall and the weather was like being indoors.
“Here,” he said, handing me a cassette.
I looked at the cassette. Someone had handwritten the words “Music by Harry” on the front label.
“Who is Harry?” I said.
He shrugged purposefully.
“Are you Harry?”
“Maybe,” he said, courting a sly attitude.
I turned it over.
“Does it have a case?” I said.
“You can have it for free without the case, or for four dollars with it.”
“I’ll take it without,” I said. But something terrible had happened as I stood there. I realized the music was beautiful. It was not the sort of thing I generally go for — an awkward combination of real and electronic instruments, with an underlying bounciness. But in just those few seconds the melody had reached out to me, wheedled inside me, set me off kilter; and just like that my eyes were full of tears.
He didn’t notice, or pretended not to, and right at the moment when he was either not noticing or pretending not to (his eyes shifty behind the lenses, his feet unsure) I saw it was Harry.
“Oh,” I said. “Hello.”
“Wow!” he said, and he gripped my entire forearm. “Of course it’s you. Of course. Only you could have that face.”
“What does that mean?” I said.
“You look great.”
“I’d better get going,” I said. But the music was still playing.
“Wow,” he said again, looking me up and down as if he was going to say something else about me. “I’m a musician now.”
I looked over my shoulder to dry my eyes with my sleeve. “People in other countries marvel at how often Americans say wow,” I said. I did an imitation of someone unpleasant saying wow, my voice as high and scratchy as I could make it. “Wow wow wow!”
It didn’t seem to bother him, which bothered me.
“You still live here, then?” he said. “After all this time? Last I saw you, you were leaving for sure.”
“But only certain types of Americans. You wouldn’t catch a CEO of an important company saying that. Or a professor at a university. Definitely the president wouldn’t say it.”
“Thank you,” he said warmly, interrupting what could have been a long list.
“What?” I said. “Why?” But he was talking to someone in colorful clothing who’d just bought one of his tapes.
“What about you?” he said. “Are you still doing graphic design for Folgers?”
I couldn’t believe he remembered I’d said this. He’d remembered to spite me.
“It’s private,” I said. “What I do.”
“Ah. Good old Irene,” he said.
“You look well set up,” I said. Someone handed him a ten dollar bill for a cassette.
“I’ve always had it in me,” he said.
“Well sure,” I said.
“But the talent, mainly.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I’ve got it all figured out,” he said.
“Great,” I said.
“I wouldn’t want to be anyone else.”
I took the tape home.
What happened at that point is that I kept listening to the tape and I kept seeing him around. Suddenly he was up in my business weekly, sometimes daily. Harry with his woolen hats and promotional key chains. “Music by Harry,” the key chains said.
“What record label are you on?” I asked the next time I saw him, mainly to be rude. But he smiled like it didn’t matter, like he believed deep down that handing out your cassettes on the sidewalk was just like having a record label, just like bashing out your songs for a thousand frantic fans. Like it was better, even. The conviction was boiling up inside him, I could see it. He knew his stuff was good.
Meanwhile, I listened to that abominable tape over and over.
The next time I saw him, he had a tip jar with a lot of money in it. “Why are you suddenly always around?” I said. “And what’s that?”
“No, what’s that tip jar for?”
“I’m really going to make this thing work.”
“What thing?” I said. “Standing on the sidewalk and giving people tapes?”
“Being a musician. I’ve had it in me.”
“Right, the talent,” I said.
“No, the conviction,” he said.
“That the time is right,” he said. “For me in particular.”
“That sounds about right.” I tried to cultivate a dismissive tone to tell him I thought he was arrogant, that I didn’t really have time for it, but he was suddenly intense.
“It’s not a free-floating rightness,” he said. “It’s right for me. The person I am, which is many things.”
I looked at the pile of tapes. “Do you have a new album? Or is this the same one as before?”
“The same one,” he said.
“The same old one,” I said.
I started making pasta, as I do when summer’s over, and thinking about free-floating rightness, and how its absence might be a problem for some people.
What decided it for me was that the tape was so good. It didn’t go downhill eventually the way most albums do. Another thing was that the time seemed right. It sounds like I’m borrowing from Harry when I say that, about time, but my understanding of time has nothing to do with his; he’s always been at odds with the sinisterness of a disappeared day, that much was always clear. (Always buoyant, Harry, always reaching — no mistaking endlessness for gladness, or gladness for woe.) My plan was not to take something from him; I didn’t see it that way. All I did was buy some blank tapes, and then make some copies, and also buy my own labels — all trifling actions that have nothing much to do with anything. And besides, the time was going by regardless.
“How big a deal is that?” I might say to someone. “Buying some tapes? Making some labels?”
Music by Harry, his labels said. Music by me, said mine.
“Who is Harry?” I’d said.
“Who is ‘me’?” said my first customer.
“Are you ‘me’?”
“Maybe,” I said, courting a mysterious expression.
The fall was a lazy fall — before long it was winter but the days stayed mild and orange leaves clung to the branches. I went out on the weekends and sometimes after work, when the early dark made me feel better about something I couldn’t place.
“Wow, you’re doing it now too,” said Harry, when our paths finally crossed in this new era.
“What you have to remember,” I said, “is that ‘me’ could be Harry, or me, or you, or anyone, and ‘Harry’ could be me or you or who knows.”
“I’m sorry?” He looked around the way people like him look around when they’re talking to people like me. You never know where another, better conversation might be lurking.
“I’m talking about the word ‘me,'” I said, “but also the meaning of ‘me,’ which is a little different than the word itself. Do you want a copy or not?”
“Sure,” he said.
“I’ll give you the case for free,” I said. I put the case in his hand, a blank tape inside.
He’s the kind of person deeply caught up in his own identity and in the business of being him. He’s probably never realized how me, a word or a person, can have multiple meanings — all different, but all the same.
I mentioned the pasta I’d been cooking, and he made a comment about winter vegetables, and then we talked about what it’s like being musicians, because that’s something we both know something about.
Lorie Broumand is a librarian. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Confrontation, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Slush Pile Magazine. She plays guitar, hurdy gurdy, and Tetris. Her latest project is a novel about an insect.