“Alexander had always been a tinkerer and an inventor.”
A man completes his life’s work with a pair of modified hearing aids.
The smell of burning solder and ozone permeated the air of the garage turned lab. The walls were lined with books, awards and inventions while the floor was littered with scraps of wire and iron filings.
Alexander had always been a tinkerer and an inventor. When he was six years old he mixed raw eggs, flour, vegetables and whatever sauces were in the fridge in an attempt to create a meal-replacement cookie. In high school he tested his theory that his English teacher only read the first paragraph of essays by making a typewriter that automatically produced the rest of the text. In college he got into physics, planning to discover the nature of nature, and graduated with honors.
His shoulders slumped as he tried to remember the last time he felt it, that sense of wonder and discovery. That feeling when one more piece of the universal puzzle fell into place and he was *alive.* On the table in front of him was a set of hearing aids, his hearing aids. The doctor kept giving him grief for ripping them apart but he was convinced they could be modified. Alexander’s gaze traveled down the arms of his lab coat, settling on the hands he had to trust to remain steady; this was probably going to be his last project.
Alexander didn’t chase girls in college. Not because he didn’t want to, but because one found him before he got the chance. Margaret was a fellow student in one of his math classes, though she majored in music theory rather than physics. They hit it off during a group study session and started dating shortly after. Margaret shared that same sense of wonder towards the universe but Alex truly knew he was on love with her when they went stargazing.
“Have you ever heard of the musica universalis?” she asked.
“Music of the universe? You mean the proportions in the movements of celestial bodies?” He knew he had missed some hidden point when she started to laugh.
“Yes, that ‘music.’ Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could actually *hear* it as music?”
“You can, sort of. Radio telescopes can pick up background cosmic radiation and–”
“White noise. Got it.” She unfurrowed her brow. “What about musica humana? The music of humans. Maybe that would work. It’s a much smaller *scale.*” The pun hung in the air, unnoticed. “Think about it: string theory is vibrations, music is vibrations. What if there was some way to bring those vibrations into the range of human hearing? Maybe we could be the ones to make it work!”
Alex closed his eyes and stretched. “Wouldn’t that be something….”
How many years had it been since that discussion? They had worked on that crazy idea for over two decades. He still had binders full of notes stuffed into boxes with the rest of her things in some corner of the basement. All that time spent arguing in front of a chalkboard, all those sleepless nights…
He soldered one final wire in the hearing aids and took a deep breath. Today was finally the day that their efforts would yield results. He inserted the devices and heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. He could already picture his doctor writing a prescription for a healthy dose of “I told you so” for finally breaking his hearing aids.
Alexander’s thoughts were interrupted by a weak melody coming from just outside the house. Five notes, over and over. It wasn’t exactly music, but it wasn’t just noise either. He walked into the house, following the sound. It was coming from the other side of the front door. The music got louder as a small package slid in through the mail slot and thunked to the floor, then it receded until he heard a door open and the engine of the mail truck start. His jaw hung slack as he stared at the package. “It worked!” he shouted, shaky fists raised in the air. “It actually worked! We did it, Margaret!”
Alexander stepped out of his house, looking every part the mad scientist with his white lab coat and frizzy hair. The breeze carried so many different tunes; children rode a wave of strong melodies on their bicycles, the neighbors who always fought emitted an angry staccato and once again, Alexander was *alive.*
Dizzy with excitement and eager to hear more music, he hurried down the street. The local panhandler’s music was sombre, the pharamacist’s song was eerily cheerful and the men relaxing outside the barber shop sat amidst a lazy tune they carried together. It was amazing.
But then he noticed something else, a man in a black coat across the street. His song was strangely absent. In fact, he seemed to absorb the music around himself like a black hole absorbs matter. Their eyes locked and Alexander’s vision dimmed.
The man sauntered across the street and extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”
Alexander tried to respond, to say anything, but the only sound he could muster was a choke for air. His tightened and his limbs became lead.
The man clasped his hands. “Don’t worry, this will be over in a minute.” And then it was done.
Alexander heard the crowd gathering before he saw them. He gasped. “I can still hear the music.”
“Mmhm. It’s beautiful.” said the man as he closed his eyes. “Though to be frank, I don’t really like this part. It’s always so dissonant.”
“It’s really over, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid so. Your heart stopped approximately two minutes ago. I guess you couldn’t take the excitement.”
Alexander laughed softly. “Maybe I just finished the final movement.”
The man joined him in the thought. “Maybe, maybe.”
Alexander had another thought. “Where’s Margaret? I thought she’d be here.”
The man scoffed. “I get that a lot. But look, I just steer the ferry; nobody tells me what’s on the other side.”
For the first time since Margaret passed away, Alexander could feel it: one more piece of the universal puzzle falling into place. “She’s there. I know it.”
“I hope you’re right,” said the man as he took Alexander by the shoulder, “you two always made beautiful music.”