The host glitters as he leans into the mike, glitters in the swath of white shirt between his dark lapels, glitters even in his hair. He may have tinsel in his hair. He’s dapper and dazzling and leans in to intone, and his words are wise, wise and funny at once, a poignant combination that makes the people in their seats sigh, sag, dab their eyes. The host smiles. Applause bathes him like balmy waters, the issue of a sulphur spring. It eases his joints. It smooths his glowing white hair, his creased pink skin. He speaks again and the clapping swells.
That’s when our heroine’s cellphone rings. She stoops to the floor, hair falling haphazard and dark around her, no tinsel there, and rummages in her purse to find that damn phone. It’s ringing so loud. Her shame burns deep.
Angry faces swivel her way. Attend a gathering like this, and you should have the presence of mind, the poise and courtesy—hell, let’s state it frankly: the class—to shut off your fucking phone. Whatever happened to manners?
If these people knew the whole truth, they’d be more than annoyed. They would be outraged, unsettled, struck dumb. The woman is not mortified on account of her phone going off. How could she have anticipated that? No one has this number; she carries the phone for safety, in case she has to dial 911. No, her shame springs from something far worse, something the phone’s unforeseen ringing has betrayed.
I should step back a moment and describe for you the big picture. This event, which has sold out the auditorium, is a gathering of sophisticated people. They have convened for a grand and conscionable cause. They have money, inhabit tasteful homes. Most of them are white people, which is a bit of a collective embarrassment. But they are very progressive, the most cosmopolitan bunch of white folk you could ask for.
The group onstage is another story. Except for the host, the people there could be described—and, in fact, during the chit-chat that preceded the event, have been described—as a veritable United Nations. The races of the world are represented, and so are various traditional garbs. We have a Buddhist monk, draped in robes the colour of PEI soil. The stubble on his head resembles a kiwi’s. We have a woman in a sari. A West African man in a bright purple dashiki. Only the host sports formal wear of the type associated with Western societies, which is to say a tux. He stands at the lectern, and the “veritable United Nations” occupy a row of chairs facing the audience.
The topic under discussion is tolerance. The panel members have worked bravely to promote or exemplify tolerance in their home nations. One of them is a journalist who was jailed and tortured for exposing systemic genocide. Another risked his life defending the rights of a maligned minority. Another took office and revolutionized her nation’s policies in the face of virulent resistance. These panel members possess a true and hard-won wisdom, evident in the angles of their heads, the telling creases around their eyes. (“Like song lines,” someone whispers to her companion, eliciting a soft moan.) With the host on hand to coax and inquire, they are here to expound.
So let’s get back to our heroine, to her shame. As we’ve learned, it does not derive from the simple fact of her phone’s having gone off. It derives from the content of her ring tone. Through an online search, the obsessive diligence of which astonished her even as she surrendered to it, she managed to acquire the opening bars of a military march composed in 1936 by Wolfgang Schimmermann—one of his final works. It is a stirring and perhaps even catchy melody, though listeners today may find its martial accent overbearing. It was composed for the regime of Nazi Germany. Rumour has it the tune was sung by rampaging thugs on Kristallnacht.
She fumbles in her purse, finds the phone, and stabs it silent.
The host, coincidentally, has just introduced a Jewish dignitary, who waves from his seat and smiles. He is wearing a yarmulke. His face is elderly and beneficent. Again our heroine feels a hot gush of shame in her gut, as if she had suffered an internal injury, had been slit perhaps by a shard of glass she’d swallowed.
But no one else cares anymore about her phone. Irritation has waned; her neighbours’ attention is fixed back on the stage. The sari-clad woman is being introduced. She has won acclaim battling caste injustices; the room bristles with anticipation as the host promises that this woman has “tales you will not believe”; perhaps, the room collectively ponders, we’re in for some real horror stories, poverty the likes of which you just don’t see in Toronto.
Immediately those same minds will rapidly correct themselves: of course you see terrible poverty in Toronto, that was a ridiculous and ignorant idea, thank God I didn’t say it out loud.
Our heroine calms down. Her pulse returns to normal. She concentrates on the proceedings, to—how do you say this; not enjoy, exactly—absorb, perhaps, maybe even benefit from the important event playing out before her. Certainly not enjoy. No one’s munching popcorn.
The West African man smiles at his introduction and says something into his clip-on mike. The room seems to swoon at the lilt of his accent. His teeth are so bright.
A gentle hand touches our heroine’s shoulder. She turns with a start. She’s in an aisle seat, and a sad-faced bald man kneels beside her. He has a long head, slim and oval. His eyes droop at the outer edges. His race is indeterminate. Immediately she wonders why she would notice this, the indeterminacy of his race. It’s not like she’s filling out a police report, where race is one of the first things they ask.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” says the man. Now she spies the crest on his shoulder, the icon of a security firm. “But you’ll have to come with me.”
She slings her purse over her shoulder. He leads her quietly up the aisle, a process that feels to her as if it takes several minutes—he has a slow step, the dusty soles of his shoes slapping softly on the thick carpet—but she observes with gratitude that no heads turn to watch their departure. He leads her into the lobby, and then through an ingenious door that looks like a portion of a large painting depicting Greek or Roman gods but is in fact a door, swinging inward with the faintest squeak. A corridor is next, painted grey and lined with pipes and wires. They arrive at the security control room. Surveillance screens crowd the walls; one of these allows our heroine to see that the Indian woman has risen to deliver her portion of the presentation.
Our heroine watches the sari-clad woman, but no sound accompanies the image. Our heroine observes the woman’s body language, the cascading shifts in the drape of her sari when she gesticulates. It is a hypnotic sight, and our heroine has not noticed the security man approaching her, holding a plastic bin.
He clears his throat. “I’m sorry, miss,” he says mournfully, and his eyes flicker to the bin. Peering in, she sees it’s full of cellphones. “It’s our policy, there’s nothing I can do about it.” His tone is intensely earnest, as if it were part of his job to gain her sympathy. “We have a cellphone policy: one ring, and it goes in the bin.” He shakes his head. “I know it’s… I didn’t make the policy. Just doing my job.”
He has been looking at the floor. Now his eyes rise to her face.
“Oh,” he says, “sorry, let me—” With an awkwardness that under happier circumstances would be comical, he laboriously searches for a place to set down the bin, plunks it at last (and precariously) on a patch of clutter-free desktop that’s slightly too small for the purpose, and lunges for a box of Kleenex positioned beside the surveillance screens. He extracts one with a faint swish and holds it out to her. It hangs limp in his hand, like the stem of a wilted flower.
“Thank you.” She dabs at her cheekbones.
He proffers the bin again.
“So many phones,” she says, still clinging to her own. “Did you collect them all tonight? ”
He shakes his head. “They accumulate. At evening’s end, many folk choose not to come back for their phones.”
Instead of answering, he glances again at the bin. The meaning of his gesture is clear to her: Our conversation is over. Please deposit your phone.
Before letting it drop, she catches the guard’s eye with her own tearful gaze. “Sir? ” she begins, her voice quavering, “is this about the ring tone? ”
He frowns to indicate he doesn’t follow.
She releases the phone. It clatters onto the heap. “My ring tone,” she says, her hands flailing in a useless attempt to clarify. “It’s a disgrace.”
“Miss,” says the guard, “our policy has to do with ringing, period. One ring, it goes in the bin. The ring tone is irrelevant. Doesn’t matter how it rings. I have to confiscate it. Just doing my job.”
“So you didn’t… nobody… my ring tone isn’t a problem? ”
He shakes his head. Why such sadness? What pulls at the corners of his eyes?
“It’s…” Confession: that incredible release. She remembers it from her Catholic days. “Sir, it’s a Nazi march. That’s what my ring tone is.”
By this point—probably before now, actually, and I apologize for not addressing it sooner—you may wonder why our heroine would have chosen this ring tone. The truth is, I don’t know. She’s not a fascist of any description. She harbours no sympathy for Nazi beliefs, no racial hatreds, no zest for atrocity. When she scoured the Internet for the Schimmermann tune, she was following a compulsion that seemed to grab her from nowhere, something like demonic attack. She could not fathom it.
So here she stands, having divulged her secret to a stranger. And he regards her with a gaze she finds inscrutable. Whether or not he judges her, or even cares about the implications of Nazi marches, let alone their having been downloaded into a portable phone, she can’t tell at first.
Very slowly, he works himself up into speaking. It’s as if the words are a knotty rope lodged deep down in his gullet, which through a muscular dexterity of the esophagus he is hauling back up to his mouth.
“Once in a while, miss, a confiscated phone will ring. Here, in this room. I can tell you, I’ve heard a lot of different ring tones. You may be ashamed of your Nazi march, but I can assure you I’ve heard others just as bad. Worse, even. Hymns to the devil. Rhymes about what a man might want to… do to a woman. A truly bad man, I mean. And it’s not always music.” His eyes probe hers imploringly. “Some folks see fit to download just plain sounds. I’ve heard things…” He looks away, into the bank of screens. His voice trembles. “Animals… People being… Even children…” His body is racked. He grips the bin hard, head bowed over it, until he regains control.
This man is a paragon of decency. All his life he has been kind. He has raised a family with tenderness and a mostly innocent heart. He never meant to get mixed up in this kind of mess. And the ring tones don’t hold any allure for him, don’t awaken some cruel stratum in his depths. But they have not left him intact. I’m sorry to report that this man is, to some extent, wrecked.
Most of us, even the decent ones, find ways to cope. And here the guard calls upon his own methods. He steels himself, smothers again the memories he’s dredged up, lets the rope of words go slack and curl upon itself and fall back down his throat.
When he looks back up, the face he reveals to our heroine is all business. “Thank you,” he says quietly. “You may return to the auditorium. Your phone will be available for pickup at the end of the night.”
She glances into the bin. There, atop the heap, is her phone, nothing more than a trifling concoction of metal and plastic. Below it is a sprawl of screens and touchpads and the occasional stubby antenna. “Will it be safe? ” she asks. He nods.
She opens the great doors at the top of the aisle. She slips into a room crammed with uplifted souls. People are applauding, weeping, pounding out their approval with manicured hands. The West African man is on his feet, head bowed, hands extended in a gesture of gratitude, and the room overflows with love for him.
The host shakes his head like someone who’s just witnessed an impressive snowboarding manoeuvre. “Wow,” he says, his voice a vessel of mellifluence, a brig in full sail upon the sea of applause. “Wow,” he intones. “Isn’t this great? ” The applause swells. The room seems filled with beating wings. “Isn’t this…” he searches, his great white head bowed in concentration. “Isn’t this Canadian? ”
The noise erupts to new heights. Hands, voices, and now even a few strangled cries, a few feeble bravos, and then that trickle expands to an orgiastic roar, voices ardent with ecstasy. Light glints on jewellery, glides off the leather surfaces of bags, caresses the pricey highlights in curtains of hair.
Our heroine cannot quite breathe. The noise is pressing against her, a palpable and suffocating mass. She slips back into the lobby. She stands at the painting of Greek or Roman gods, examines it until she finds the secret handle. She clomps down the corridor in her heels. She spots a red exit sign just past the security office.
The guard turns in surprise from the surveillance screens. “In the lobby,” the heroine cries. “There’s someone… There’s a man, he’s robbing someone! He’s attacking a woman in the lobby! With a knife!” The guard turns back to the bank of screens. “No,” urges our heroine, “she’s up against a wall, just under the camera. You can’t see it from here.”
The guard runs from the office. She hears his footfalls in the concrete corridor. She pries open her purse and plumps it on the patch of desk where minutes earlier the phone bin sat. She finds the bin, hefts it, carries it over to the desk, and tips it. The phones clatter into her purse.
Footsteps in the corridor again. She drops the empty bin. It bounces once on the floor. She closes her purse, which bulges now with confiscated phones, and rushes from the room.
“No!” shouts the guard, his voice a ricochet in the concrete tunnel. But she’s gone, pushing through the exit door, hearing it wheeze shut behind her. She finds herself in an alley. She runs to its mouth and emerges on a bustling street.
It’s a humid night in Toronto. Bad things are happening all over the city, even as she stands there and looks left, then right. You know what the bad things are; it’s useless to list them. They involve people with malevolent intent, people driven to excesses of rage, people distorted by intoxicants, racked with lust, driven lawless by hunger or the indignities of poverty. Husbands whose truest voice is force; wives whose only recourse is revenge. Parents who cannot properly love their offspring. Or whose love took a fateful turn. You know what the bad things are; they are the affairs of humans, wherever humans teem; they are the stuff of any city.
But our heroine doesn’t sense these bad things, not yet. For now she hears the guard’s voice behind her in the alley, and she knows she has to get away. She starts quickly up the street. A cloud slips over the moon. A streetcar swings around a curve. Our heroine walks faster and faster, her heels rigid beneath her, as her purse begins to vibrate, then to rumble, and finally to scream.
This appeared in the October 2011 issue.