#419: Portishead, "Dummy" (1994)

Watching the red second hand glide, Beth thought about her posture. She’d hold her arms like she’d practiced—head cocked, eyes thrown at the dark shapes beneath the window of the projection booth, arms bent at her sides. In front of the mirror she’d been a Rodin, and even at her worst she allowed a comparison to a broken masterpiece. Even the Venus de Milo had her flaws.

A classmate coughed. In front and behind, the scuffling of graphite on paper mixed with whispers. A gust of wind outside tugged at the dying leaves off the oak trees that dotted the student parking lot, their delicate impacts adding silent stresses to the lecture Ms. Kovak somnolently decanted. Beth let the gentle cadence of her teacher’s words wash over her; how easy they flowed one into the other. Next to the photo of Earth taken from far away, the red line continued its progression.

Where was she? The words. It certainly wasn’t the words. Those she could write backwards in her best cursive, each one having spent time on her tongue, bringing forth moisture like a stone. She knew their contours, had felt them pull and twist at her dark places as she pressed both cushions of her headphones until they laid flush against her temples; the honesty, the longing, the pain. The way they dripped from the singer’s mouth, pooling in her eardrums.

What kept Beth’s eyes cutting at the red line beside Earth’s reflective light was her noises, culled from the desire to illicit the same response, to give them shape from her own longing. It was the noises she feared she’d make that kept Beth rapt in attention towards the clock’s shifting face. The hushed whisper she reserved for the echo of her parents’ footsteps on their house’s hardwood was the only space she’d allotted those words to roam. If the singer’s voice was water, Beth thought, then hers was a cobblestone street.

In front of the mirror, she’d watched her lips move, the sounds barely audible over the creak of wood, the soft domestic breaths of her parents’ motions. They rose jagged and misshapen from her throat, each word encased in a thick layer of earth and slag. In her room she’d kept those words close, quietly fussing over their appearance, smoothing out the rough edges, her head cocked and her eyes cast long into the distance. Today she’d show her sounds to the dark shapes, the ones beneath the projection booth, their forms one with the darkness around them. Her arms bent at her sides. Today she’d let them run wild and free, she thought, as the red line allowed a right angle to form between 12 and 3 and a sound cut short the lecture.

Beth blinked. Building-wide conversations erupted as tennis balls swept soundlessly on chair feet across tiled floors and the din of pent-up noise swallowed the bell. Students rose, unfurled bunched clothing and shuffled papers back into the various folds of their solid color Five Stars. Chatter followed each movement, as straps were slung over shoulders and the great exodus towards buses and cars and home began. Beth, however, was silent. Placing her hands palm down on the hard plastic of her desk, she raised her body reluctantly. Sucking air deep into her lungs, she exhaled. Canvas bag slung over her left shoulder, Beth was the last to leave Ms. Kovak’s room as the sweat from her palms evaporated off the desk’s surface and the red line continued its progression.

Out in the hall, the applause of footsteps grew as Beth joined the confluence of the student body as it sloshed along the scuffed faux-marble floor. Struggling to match the pace of the current, she made her way along the cramped tributaries from the math hallway into the foreign language hallway, coming to a pause where her locker was three in on the left in a bank of tarnished red metal. As she fumbled with the rotary’s combination, she felt in the rhythm of the metal the words that scrolled by on the ticker tape behind her eyes:

Did you realize, no one can see inside your view?
Did you realize, for why this sight belongs to you?

The door opened with a bang and Beth reached a hand in, procuring her headphones amidst the clutter. Wiggling the iPod from her front left pocket, Portishead’s “Strangers” was cued up and waiting to be received. The cushions enveloped her head as she pressed play and the horns spiraled and she slammed the locker shut. The clock in the hall read 3:07. She had 23 minutes before her audition.


No one had told her about the heat. Standing with her feet shoulder-width apart on the worn wood of the stage, she felt the light press like hands on her exposed skin. Becoming accustomed to the autumn weather, the mock summer pressed heavy on her frame. She was relieved to have removed her cardigan. In the darkness a throat cleared. The follicles on her arms basked in the warm glow, as Beth stood alone in the spotlit cloud, thinking about her posture. A bead of sweat came into being on the small of her back and began its slow descent.

A door opened opposite the stage, spilling light from the hallway down the aisle. The outline advanced through the sparse auditorium and paused to enter the row where several figures sat beneath the outline of the projection booth.  Beth felt her palms fill with a familiar slickness, and the cry of metal announced that her final audience member had arrived. 

“My apologies, detentions went longer than expected. You may begin whenever you are ready.”

Beth hung onto the vowel sound as it faded into the soundproofing. Where does sound go when it’s done being heard? The voices, the drums, the horns, the crackle and pops of vinyl, all absorbed into bodies, bricks, wood, fabric. Does it die? Can it feel pain? It hits yet causes none, but what about the equal and opposite reaction that Beth was taught exists by law. Perhaps that’s one law, like jaywalking, that’s meant to be broken, for convenience sake. Maybe the sound of sound dying is a frequency we’re not meant to hear, or can’t handle, like the voice of God. Beth blinks hard. It’s not God. But maybe not too far off.

When Beth was small she’d shuffle around the house testing the noises that came from the things she touched—the sigh of the mail slot, the dark echo of the laundry shoot, the way the steps yawned against her slight weight. She’d rattle doorknobs, swing cabinets on their hinges, and push furniture across the hardwood and linoleum. Her parents would laugh and share glances, catering to Beth’s need to make sense of her world, to make sound of her world. Every kitchen utensil was tested against the metal of the stove and the washing machine, as Beth categorized their timbres like each were a steel drum.

She remembers the noises her parents would make, the laughter spurred by a hushed remark, light kisses and whispers that in Beth’s primitive language stood for love. Even the sounds she didn’t understand, the ones that came at night, gave her comfort. In time those sounds were defined, spelled out, and as Beth’s frame grew, her body filling in the contours of her clothing, the sounds she made stopped sounding like her own. Her voice, like that first round of teeth, had another pushing beneath it.


Beneath the heat of the lights, Beth felt stirring in the morass of her silence the words forming, clotting, taking shape. She tasted metal in her mouth as the room outside her lit radius sparked a soft luminescence. In the curtains and paint layers, between the fibers of the rugs and the interwoven fabric of the seats, the silhouettes of dead sounds were strewn and hung. For a moment Beth could see them all—a mosaic, a tapestry, and the darkness glowed brighter and hotter than her center of gravity and the lights were consumed briefly by the outpouring that Beth alone was poised to catch.

Can anybody see the light?

“We’re ready when you are.”

Cocking her head and with arms bent, Beth threw her eyes at the figures reclining in the darkness. The words, extracted from the rough ore of her chest, glowed hot in her throat: a magazine of sound. As the horns in her head spiraled, her voice rang out and the sounds in the darkness hushed their glow and met hers with a roaring silence.

—Nick Graveline