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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2009/06/28
by Jesse Jarnow

A Masked Stranger

BRAIN TUBA: A Masked Stranger

A masked stranger came to town. Kazakh spotted him first. He arrived during one of the weird, elongated dusks, the air particulates vibrating in bumblebee curlicues sympathetic with distant seismic movement. Dude was dressed like a Dubai cowboy: fedora, bandana across his face, tangled black hair spilling out the back, and over-sized aviator sunglasses. His forehead, where it was visible, was painfully white.

He spoke in a high, strained voice. Unable to understand the man’s English, Kazakh described the stranger’s first words as “yyyyyj,” a kind of tired specific to travelers who are on particularly perilous journeys, still unresolved. Kazakh then came to get me.

By the time I made it out, the man was sitting on the ground, leaning against a hitching post. He was covered in dust, but I could tell his pants were finely cut, tucking impeccably into black, pointed boots that must have once been very stylish wherever he had come from. He did not remove his sunglasses. I offered him some water from my canteen, but he shook me off. In the company of a fellow English speaker—and Kazakh knows English when he hears it—the man now refused to speak.

I sat with him for a while and asked him a few questions. He looked as if he was sick of being asked about anything, so I stopped, and simply sat with him. A crowd gathered at first, but I nodded at Kazakh and he shooed everybody off. I’m not sure how he did it, crowd control is hard thing in a place like this, but people stayed away. When it got cold, I brought the man a blanket. The man shook his head again, and I put it on the ground next to him, along with my canteen.

As I stood up straight again, the man finally rasped something. I bent down to listen more closely, and—suddenly—he grabbed my forearm. His reflexes were sharp, and he had an amazing amount of strength as he grasped me. No more sounds came from his throat, but I felt something pass through his fingers, as if in osmosis. He let go.

Reaching into his pocket, he removed a small gray object and pressed it into my palm. It was a USB thumb drive. The man’s posture changed, as if he now wanted to sleep. I left him be and went home. It was late.

I popped it into my computer and the drive mounted, with no title, just an icon of a circle. I double-clicked. A screen full of files opened, maybe 20 or 30. Each was named with a single letter, and in no apparent order. I clicked on “F.” Inside was the same thing, different letters, some repeating. Three levels down, the file names disappeared entirely, simply empty icons, arranged in varying grid formations. I backed track and made my way down different hierarchies. In some, the number of folders changed, eventually dwindling down to one, like a path narrowing towards a secret chamber. But, at least 20 levels down, it started to widen again. I backtracked. I needed to go to sleep.

As I was on the verge of calling it quits with the insane labyrinth—like an infinite library filled with endless rooms of nothingness, and spiraling stairs to the same—I found content. A single mp3, untitled. Not even a file format extension. I clicked it open. The file was around 45 hours long. I clicked through to the middle, and a familiar sound came through my headphones: the bass solo to a live version of “You Enjoy Myself,” by Phish. I clicked sequentially. It was, as best as I could figure out, a single, continuous mp3 of Phish’s summer tour. I was a bit taken aback.

I ran back to where the man had been sitting, and he was gone. Sleep didn’t really come that night.

The next day, I started clicking through some of the Phish sets. They sounded alright: crisp, tight, even happy. But here in the village, so far away, I could only hear it as the sound of a repertoire reawakening. I heard nothing new, so much as the sound of earnest, adult rediscovery. It wasn’t about whether the songs themselves were good or not, simply their performances, that they were there, that they were happening, that people were together hearing (and playing) the songs. The songs’ greatest purpose seemed to be themselves. Jams spread interestingly, like water lapping at the boundaries of its channels, looking for the sea. The man still hadn’t returned. Nobody had seen him.

At the end of my third day of on and off listening, the file wouldn’t play. It was late in the evening, and I was contemplating taking Fgfgfgfgfgfgfgfgfgerina out for a moonlight stroll. I restarted the application, and realized I had to go digging through the mysterious thumb drive’s hierarchy again. I selected ‘get info’ for the thumb drive, and the computer refused to calculate the number of folders inside, nor would it search by file type. I dug a little bit, though knew I wouldn’t find it, having a feeling that anybody else using the thumb drive would find a completely different mp3 inside. Maybe by Phish, probably not.

I ejected the drive, tossed it in my pocket, and went looking for Fgfgfgfgfgfgfgfgfgerina. Halfway to her yurt, the man stepped out from behind a ghsdg tree. He was standing straighter now, as if the weight of carrying the thumbdrive had sapped him of his energy. I could see his nose, now, behind his bandana. It was thin and reedy. He whispered, but no words came out. He took the thumbdrive from me, pocketed it, nodded at me, and stood there awkwardly. I went to Fgfgfgfgfgfgfgfgfgerina’s.

The man stayed in the village. He is here still, and I imagine he will be here for some time. Sometimes, we see him dancing at night.

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