Literature differs from history not by “invention” but by a greater, more intimate understanding of people and events, by deeper concern about them.
Yuri Tynyanov, Russian writer and literary critic (1894–1943)
The day Arnold Keys turned fifty he decided he was losing his hearing.
It was bad enough there was no way to pass for young anymore or to deny that most of his life was over. It was worse to confront the loss of his most precious sense. Arnold was prepared to forego touch, taste, smell (chronically stuffed sinuses had largely killed it off anyway), and even sight as his body hurtled toward dust. But hearing! Oh God, not hearing!
For to Arnold Keys the world was empty without music. Not rock or hip hop or country or jazz, but classical. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. Schubert, Chopin, Tchaikovsky. Stravinsky, Shostakovich, but not Schoenberg (although his early stuff was okay). Since college it had been his comfort. At breakfast peppy works like the finale of Haydn’s Symphony 98 set his head nodding. Driving to work in his gray 2012 Toyota Camry he listened to KDFC, the only full-time classical radio station in the Bay Area, and hummed along — revenge on his father, who used to say Arnold couldn’t carry a tune if it had handles. Good days at the office found him whistling dance melodies by Offenbach, bad days brooding to the final movement of Mahler’s last symphony. On the ride home he again turned on KDFC, bopping to the short, cheerful showpieces of its afternoon playlist.
The best part of the day came after dinner. Instead of slumping down to a night of TV or internet surfing, Arnold climbed to his study — an extra bedroom he’d soundproofed with corkboard and carpet — and became one with his music. He owned two thousand CDs, several dozen rare LPs, and a Blaupunkt sound system to hear them with. So as not to be disturbed, he forbade everyone else from the room. When Rudy grew old enough for a sound system of his own, Arnold bought him an off-brand MP3 player, cheap earbuds, and a fifty dollar iTunes gift card. The stratagem worked; Rudy had yet to challenge his father’s hegemony over the study. Arnold was never so glad to play Santa as last Christmas, when Rudy asked for a pair of red Beats wireless headphones so he could play his bass- and volume-heavy music as loud as he wished without disturbing his parents or neighbors.
In the middle of his sanctuary Arnold placed a podium, and whenever the spirit moved him he conducted from it. He sometimes felt ashamed that the greatest joy in his life was stepping onto a wooden box and flailing his flabby arms at his floor-to-ceiling CD collection. If only he had this much passion for sex! Even politics would have been a more constructive outlet. But Arnold had come to accept that he was more Arturo Toscanini than George Clooney or Barack Obama. And if it turned out he couldn’t be Toscanini outside his study, that was okay. Being an adult meant acknowledging that things never worked out as you wanted and taking solace where you could.
But now he was losing his hearing.
It wasn’t fair. It was never fair. Oh how they mocked you, Beethoven, for spasming with song in the streets, thinking in their brutish little minds you did it for attention when all you were trying to do was make yourself hear! Ye gods! Anything to hear, anything at all! Arms, legs, life, the universe!
That night Arnold ignored his wife Linda’s welcoming smile and Rudy’s perpetual sulk, shunted aside the family dog (a frisky, brown-patched spaniel mix named Figaro) and marched straight to his study, where he put on the tails he reserved for special nights, leaped onto the podium, and played the uncompromising Fifth Symphony. To Beethoven, that immortal opening triplet in G followed by an accented whole note in E flat represented Fate coming for him. But when Arnold heard them they sounded no more ominous than Figaro’s scratching at the back door to go outside.
He cranked the volume louder. And louder still. He turned the sound so high that, had his hearing been normal, the aural barrage would have met the legal definition of torture.
But it wasn’t loud enough.
He left his sanctuary crestfallen. Insisting to Linda that nothing was wrong, he holed up in their bedroom and flipped through the TV channels for something mindless. He settled on an old Seinfeld episode. He didn’t laugh once.
By the time Linda dared to crack open the door and peer in, he’d calmed down enough to sound convincing when he said the cause of his mood was a bad day at work. He saw no reason to tell the truth. He’d get upset all over again, she’d make an appointment with an otolaryngologist and show up at the office to make sure he went, he’d get upset even more, they’d bicker loudly enough for others to hear, and they’d be on the outs for days.
Arnold didn’t want that. He loved his wife, especially if love was defined as amazement at how much more she put up with than he deserved, and his biggest regret was that he lacked the capacity to requite her devotion with the sentimental declarations and displays of affection she seemed to crave. But inasmuch as none of the men in his acquaintance were worthy of their wives, and he at least treated his kindly, he deemed himself an above-average husband. Certainly Linda could have done worse.
As if thinking the same thing, she snuggled against him wordlessly (or at least he didn’t hear her say anything). After a few minutes she slipped from his arms and into their bathroom. She returned wearing nothing but a merry widow. Arnold thought (but would never say) that she looked more silly than seductive as she paraded her stocky, varicosed body before him.
She pulled down his Fruit of the Looms and gave him his usual birthday present, all the fellatio he desired. It succeeded in taking his mind off his hearing. But only for a little while.
Arnold Keys was a lawyer at the Oakland firm of Brooke, Klein & Shipler, often referred to, even in its ranks, as Hook, Line & Stinker. For a couple of years after law school he tried solo practice but couldn’t make a go of it. He caught on as an associate at a major firm in San Francisco, but it merged with another firm and he was laid off before he came up for partner. After struggling as a freelance research attorney and even a paralegal, he landed this job.
Shipler, the managing partner, strove to build a competitively priced East Bay alternative to the high-powered firms in San Francisco. “Anyone with a legal issue should be able to walk in here and find an attorney skilled in that area of law,” was his mantra. In the late 1980s BK&S started a landlord-tenant group — a lead attorney, two associates, and a legal secretary — to cash in on the litigation arising from the rent control ordinances in Berkeley and elsewhere. Arnold didn’t know a thing about landlord-tenant law and was afraid of trying cases, but his father, who had also been a lawyer and was acquainted with Klein, put in a word for him when BK&S’s landlord-tenant lead quit after eighteen years and moved to Hawaii to spend the rest of his life surfing. Arnold, approaching forty, realized this could be his last shot at success, so he labored like a dray horse.
Most of the work was routine. A threatening note on letterhead usually intimidated tenants into doing what the landlord wanted. If it didn’t, Arnold sent a three-day notice, giving the tenants that long to comply with the owner’s demands or move out. If the tenants still didn’t cooperate he issued eviction notices. Once they received an eviction, most tenants left within thirty days. Those who didn’t were either fools or socialists. The fools defended themselves and were easily dispatched. But the socialists hired attorneys who made his job nearly intolerable.
Tenant lawyers were the mujahideen of the legal profession: ideologically driven, ill-equipped, averse to fair fights, and successful beyond reason. Two-thirds of cases that went to trial were decided in favor of tenants, usually on technicalities. If the law said you couldn’t dot your i’s on Fridays, and out of ignorance or carelessness the landlord dotted one i on a Friday, tenant lawyers acted as if defending their clients from a mass murderer.
And the judge and jury would buy it. No matter how adamantly you argued that the error was de minimis, you couldn’t win. Conservative judges insisted on following the letter of the law instead of the spirit, even when they didn’t like the law. Liberal judges shared the bias of the tenant lawyers and gave them every edge. As for juries, anybody with respect for property rights wriggled out of serving, leaving a pool receptive to tenant lawyer sob stories. The problem was worst in Alameda County, where leftist and minority jurors from Oakland and Berkeley outnumbered and bullied white moderates from the rest of the county.
“The law is stacked in favor of tenants,” Shipler opined early in Arnold’s tenure. Shipler was a sixtyish man of moderate height and build and intelligence who took himself very seriously because he made a lot of money and was a mover in the local Democratic party. “You look at any other form of property, all the owner has to do is claim his right to it” — he snapped his fingers — “and it’s in his possession like that. With a rental unit you have to ask the tenant to yield possession, and if he doesn’t, you have to spend thousands of dollars to force him out. Just to recover what’s yours in the first place.”
Arnold nodded. He always nodded when Shipler opined. Long before the term became popular, Shipler was a mansplainer, not only to women but to men, especially men of lower rank like Arnold. That was okay though, especially after Klein retired and Shipler became Arnold’s boss. Most of the time Arnold agreed with Shipler anyway.
Arnold was in a tenuous position at the firm. His well-publicized win in the Elliebeth Williams case had enhanced the firm’s visibility, but in time made him less of an asset. California law mandated vacancy decontrol, meaning landlords could raise the rent to market rates whenever a tenant moved out. It gave landlords in rent-controlled jurisdictions tremendous incentive to evict, but the law was so unpopular they were reluctant to use it, especially if they lived in town and didn’t like having their home and auto vandalized. The furor over the Williams case turned public opinion in favor of small landlords, who promptly rose en masse against their tenant oppressors. For a while Arnold had all the work he could handle and then some. But after the initial rush, evictions fell off, and so did more complicated (and more lucrative) landlord-tenant disputes. As billable hours diminished, first one of Arnold’s associates, then the other, was let go. The unit was down to him and his secretary Darlene.
Sooner or later they’d both go too.
He still brought in enough to justify his position. He billed a modest three hundred an hour to attract insurers and always met his quota of seventeen hundred billable hours, meaning he brought in over half a million dollars per year. After subtracting his and Darlene’s salary and benefits, BK&S netted about forty cents on each of those dollars. The problem was that lawyers in hotter specialties, such as anything involving tech, brought in twice as much per hour, so from the partners’ perspective Arnold was just like the tenants he evicted: occupying space they could get a lot more money for.
That could be why they never made him a partner. The one time he raised the possibility Shipler cut him off, saying the firm was too small to add partners, he and Brooke and Klein were probably the poorest law firm owners in the Bay Area. Arnold tried contacting his patron Klein, but Klein always seemed to be on a cruise or otherwise unreachable. Shipler agreed to raise Arnold’s pay a few percent each year and promised there’d be bonuses for further successes like Williams, and Arnold settled for that. He told himself he ought to look for other opportunities, but never did; he worked close enough to the employment group to overhear them sometimes, and from their discussions he knew the chances of someone his age finding an equal- or better-paying job were almost non-existent.
But then Mervin Hayes in bankruptcy was offered a partnership. Hayes hadn’t been with the firm half as long as Arnold, but the bankruptcy section was booming under his stewardship, and given the economy it probably would continue to prosper. That provided Hayes the leverage he needed.
Some mornings Arnold came to work determined to have it out with Shipler. Why had Hook, Line & Stinker betrayed him? He’d done nothing to deserve such disrespect. But deep down he knew the real reason they hadn’t made him a partner: he wasn’t their type. They were into golf and tailored clothes and politics and big-ticket events like Warrior games. He’d rather retreat to his study and conduct a late nineteenth-century tone poem.
He once saw Brooke at the City Symphony. Brooke sat front and center on the ground floor, the priciest seats. To his left sat his wife. To his right sat a justice of the California state supreme court and (presumably) the justice’s wife. From his subscription seat in the nosebleed section Arnold trained his opera glasses on Brooke and watched him scrolling on his mobile phone, utterly oblivious to a stirring performance of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony. “Bastard probably hasn’t even turned off his ringtone,” Arnold whispered to Linda between movements.
So Arnold swallowed his disappointment and began saving his nickels and dimes against the day the pink slip came. He brought lunch from home three times a week. Next week he’d begin taking BART instead of driving. He’d hate not listening to music on his way to and from the office, but he’d save three hundred a month in parking fees. And sometime soon he’d cut his CD purchases by half.
Lord. He might as well cut his breathing by half.
© 2022 Andrew Goldblatt. All rights reserved. This work may not be used in part or in whole for any purpose without the author’s prior written consent.