Fall 2005

Colors / Silver

A little night music

Priscilla Becker

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

Silver is the metallic version of my favorite color, gray. I don't like silver as much as I do gray for the same reasons I don't like loud people as much as quiet ones. Silver was worn to good effect by the Tin Man, but on others, it can seem like second-string arrogance: I'm special, but not as special as gold over here. It's good for jets, streaks, and bullets—anything that zips through the air.

Silver is also the color of my radiator, a beloved apparatus in my apartment. I love little more than to be awoken in the night by the sound of the heat spitting on. Its strange nocturnal respiration fills me with a deep sense of security.

Priscilla Becker’s radiator. Photo Ryo Manabe.

My father always kept the heat low—fifty-eight degrees at night and sixty-two during the day. We weren’t freezing, just uncomfortable—the favored condition of my family.

My father also likes music to be turned down low. The sensation of an orchestra needling in the distance is a source of irritation for me. I like music to be heard and heat to be felt. The suggestion of music or the intimation of heat makes me feel desperate, but they are just the conditions, I suppose, that make my father feel alive. In any case, these tendencies of my father’s are good indications of his crepuscular existence.

The heat in my childhood home was noiseless, its emissions weak and regular, more a gesture towards comfort than comfort itself. The heat in my apartment announces itself, most noticeably in the middle of the night when it bumps up against the relative quiet.

This is the time when I get up to relieve my bladder. I stumble into the middle room where intricate criss-crossed shadows are sketched on my walls by the giant tree outside my windows. It is a beautiful and frightening scene. Often there is a moment when I am torn between continuing to the john and sitting among the shadows of my middle room. I have done both. The times I choose the shadows, my face falls into their line and acts out the play of darkness and light for a while.

It is then that the song of the silver radiators plays out. There are three—radiators, that is. I neglected to mention their number because I hate to play favorites—another familial carry-over—but it is my bedroom radiator of which I am most fond. I suspect, though, that their number goes a way toward explaining my new appreciation for this color. I have never before had more than one radiator, at least not more than one that I’d call my own.

To be fair, I don’t know which radiator sounds the first note of the symphony, asleep as I am on its downbeat, but I suspect, because of its westernmost position in the apartment, that it is the one in the writing room. Because this is opposite to sense (for why would a song rise in the west?), I feel it is probably correct—just as when I think I should turn right, if I turn left instead, I am usually headed in the right direction.

I imagine the song begins in timid fashion, in the westernmost room, from the thinnest of the three radiators—just three humps wide—with a remote whistle, like a mosquito flying in from the coast. It hovers and worries for a few moments alerting the bedroom radiator to begin its ascent—a gathering-up, a dredging, silver wind shuttled through a tunnel. This is the sound that wakes me.

It is not unusual for sound to wake me—I have the shallow sleep of the congenitally guilty. In summer, while growing up, the sound of tension in the trees would wake me. It was a vibrant sound like high live wires, alert and crackling. A few years ago, I described this tension to a friend, who laughed and said it was locusts, which fly in swarms and nest in the tops of trees. Another friend claimed it was cicadas, and I think now, after listening to their downloaded mating calls, that this is probably what I heard.

Sometimes after awakening, I would get up to check that nothing had been moved in the house. On rare occasions I would encounter my father. The unexpected sight of him hunched over a bowl of cornflakes, his silent spoon unaided by artificial light, embarrassed me. That I had been discovered creeping pointlessly through the house embarrassed me too.

And now in my own apartment, awoken by the sounds of the heat, it is perhaps the sense of the actual that impresses me.

On nights that I succumb to the allures of the shadows, I proceed to the middle room and take to my rocking chair. Each backward motion chips white paint from the wall, revealing a green, like mold, beneath it. The shadows web across my face.

As though sensing my presence, the middle room radiator chimes in—like someone whistling between silver amalgam fillings. By this time, the bedroom is gaining momentum: it delivers two sustained pitches, from different sections of its orchestra—a high note blown from the top as from a silver flute, and from the lower portion, more like a bassoon, a steady hiss. An internal rattling also pipes in—a machine sound.

The writing room begins its rhythm—an under-percussion—a gentle low thumping; its song gathers urgency. After all, it is a little further on in the theme. A staggered tune, a round, is by now in full bloom.

The middle room, not to be outdone, inserts its rhythmic pattern; it beats a higher, sweeter tone than the writing room, like someone tamping an embroidered plaque into the wall. Its tune becomes more insistent, and though I like to think of my bedroom radiator as the big guy, the string section for our purposes, in all honesty this prestige probably falls to the middle room—what with its central location, its position before the conductor (me).

This middle room is the carrier of the main theme—percolation. It is a murmuring, a conversation—among its own silvery disparate parts, and also among the voices from the other rooms.

And I haven’t yet mentioned the kitchen and bathroom. The wind instruments come primarily from these rooms, where tall pipes finish in silver gauges—the source of their sound. These have far less range than the silver accordions, delivering only the mostly sustained but sometimes gusting high winds of the tropics.

The bedroom goes on; the writing room lags; the middle room is quiet, exhausted.

Then it all begins again, but in a fury, a confusion of tones. The writing room fights for precedence, and, once gained, holds its harmonies. A toilet is flushed in an abutting eastern apartment—a cascade of cymbals shimmering over the top of the sound.

From the bedroom, a high-pitched valvic squealing, like pulling up to a stop, applying the brakes. And with this denouement, my mood begins to sympathetically descend. A satisfied whisper releases from the center of the radiator and rides out on its own breath. Now a mid-range clinking, the sound of finger tambourines made of silver nickels, submerged and internal.

The writing room delivers its final kettle drum sound—like large drops of water dripping into a basin. And, in fact, I later discover, water is dripping, though not into a basin, but onto my hardwood floor.

As I reluctantly get up from my seat, I console myself with my fortune—a silver symphony of a half hour’s duration, and with the knowledge that I have tickets in my bathrobe pocket for many future nights of song—at least for a few more weeks, when the heat is officially turned off.

Priscilla Becker’s book of poems, Internal West (Zoo Press, 2001), won The Paris Review book prize. She teaches writing at Columbia University and writes record reviews for several music magazines.

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