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The Brown Note by Jessica Walker | Word Riot
Short Stories

January 15, 2016      

The Brown Note by Jessica Walker

Recovery Journal by Theresa “DJ MisTeRi KaOs” Loftin-Price, Age 18


Entry 1:

      Help! My fate is in the hands of a headshrinker who keeps a Tarot deck on her coffee table, a crystal between her tits and three Zodiac charts on her wall. Her name is Felicia Finger. But that sounds porn-y as fuck and she looks exactly like a bullfrog. So in my head she’s always Frog Lady.
      Frog Lady says I gotta keep this journal. And the judge says I gotta do whatever Frog Lady says if I want the charges erased. So I guess I better fill up this space with something. I’m pretty sure it’s all bullshit, but it could somehow matter in the end.
      They say I’m addicted to meth. But that’s a crock. I only ever used medicinally. Just little bumps to make myself poop. Everybody knows stimulants work great for constipation.
      Today Frog Lady asked how my “addiction” started. I told her my stupid friend Jenna saw Ex-Lax in my underwear drawer after school and laughed at me. I couldn’t tell Jenna I was stopped up. She’s a total blabbermouth, it’d be all over Charlottesville Academy in minutes. So I said I wanted on-demand poops to prank my neighbors with burning bags of shit. Jenna was like—“You use your own shit? So Cool!” Then she said there’s an easier way. And she called her mother’s sister’s manicurist’s boyfriend out at the Sea Oak Trailer Park.
      I drove away from the trailer park that night with the answer to my problems tucked in my back jeans pocket.
      It wasn’t like druggie tweaker stuff. Just snorting. No smoking. No mainlining. I was careful, kept things pretty under control. Until that one time I got busted by a lame-ass rent-a-cop. So I’m not a real addict. Just another unlucky bastard trapped in the system. But when I told Frog Lady my “addiction story” she just shook her head, jotted notes and mmm-hmm-ed under her breath.
      After my hour was up, Frog Lady pressed this journal into my hand and said:
      “Whenever you feel the urge to use, write in this instead.”

Entry 2:

      Today Frog Lady’s office reeked like burnt Thanksgiving. She was holding a smoldering bundle of leaves and waving the smoke around with a feather.
      “Come in, Teri,” she said. “It’s just sage. I like to clear the energy between sessions.”
      I hacked up a hairball from the smoke and sat on the busted-up couch, picking out stuffing and rolling it into little balls until Frog Lady sat across from me and said I should pick a replacement behavior.
      “Something positive to do when you want to use,” she said. “Like art. Or exercise.”
      “What about a project?” I asked.
      “What kind?”
      “Like a music project. I’m gonna find a whole new sound.”
      “That sounds excellent. Music can be very therapeutic. So now you have two coping mechanisms when you want to use—your journal and your music.”
      Then she started talking all this blah blah blah shit about my parents’ divorce, so I never told her my replacement behavior is looking for the brown note. I’ve been obsessed ever since my idol DJ Stone Hinge talked in an interview about a sonic frequency that causes everyone who hears it to shit their pants.
      A lot of people think the brown note is a myth, but DJ Stone Hinge thinks it’s out there, that everybody’s just been looking in the wrong places. Most people look super-low—at deep dark bass notes. Soundless vibrations. Unhearable cosmic rumblings. But I’m gonna look where no one else does—at the stuff I see every day, things I kinda hear but don’t really listen to. Maybe I’ll find the brown note in a baby’s fart. Or the click of Rubix cube. Or the clunk of a lock locking.
      When I got home, I began soundproofing my DJ studio. Which is actually a room in my mom’s basement. And where I sleep. At least until the DJing takes off. I thought about using egg cartons stapled all over my walls, but my mom has this organic farm and uses the same carton each week. So I’m using blankets instead. I strung them up all over, nailed them to the ceiling. Of course Mom started bitching that Aunt Alice’s quilt went missing from the divan, giving me the side-eye. I stayed silent. It was for her own good. I’d hate for the brown note to find her in the middle of a phone call. Or a date. Or a glass of sauvignon blanc with the other lady psych professors who can’t know anything about this. They’d psychoanalyze the shit out of me. And there’s nothing to figure out here. I’m just trying to keep Frog Lady happy so I can get everybody off my case.

Entry 3:

      Mom’s at a conference in Washington DC, so I’m with my dad this week. He’s a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He’s been taking me to work to “keep an eye on me” then forgets I’m there. So I just kinda wander around campus and try to pretend like I’m a student. I’m the right age. But the whole school looks like a J. Crew catalogue barfed all over neoclassical architecture. And I’ve got a septum ring and a sleeve tattoo and I wear the same ripped jeans every day without washing them.
      I collected recordings on my phone: a lawnmower sputtering, the jangle of a Chihuahua’s collar and the chik-chik-chik of a water sprinkler. When I get home, I’m going to download the sounds to my computer and manipulate them with my DJ software to see if the brown note’s lurking somewhere beneath the surface.
      I was hanging out around the Lawn–a big grassy quad designed by Thomas Jefferson, the guy who founded the school–when I stepped on a sidewalk grate and felt a whoosh of warm stinky air up my pants. The air was from the steam tunnels — six-mile maze that runs underneath the school, full of pipes and janitors and rats. People sneak in — drunk college kids, bored townies, druggies looking for warmth. I knelt down, hit record on my phone and listened hard. I thought I heard something small, like a girl voice. HELLLLLOOO, I shouted down through the grate. And something helloed back.
      I played back the recording. Maybe it was a voice. Maybe just an echo. I couldn’t tell. I need to get into the steam tunnels. Maybe the brown note’s there. It sure wouldn’t hurt to look.
      I’ve always liked having a project. My first big science fair was in seventh grade. I microwaved beans and planted them to see if the stress had any effect on their development. “Pointless,” my father said. “There’s no profit in bean farming. Only socialist subsidies. Try to improve the microwave. Drive down the cost of production.”
      My mother disagreed. She rooted for the microwaved seeds, the underdog. I rooted for the control group, the nice, normal non-microwaved seeds. My father rooted for the almighty microwave. Turns out the normal seeds did best. Big surprise. But the microwaved seeds survived, they just grew a little wonky.

Entry 4:

      Today was the first time I’ve seen Frog Lady in a bra and a suit. Usually she wears flowery muumuus and the same raggedy brown cardigan with huge pockets.
      “What’s up, you got a date?” I said as I settled into the chaise.
      “I had a court date,” she said.
      “What happened?”
      “Nothing good. One of my clients held up a gas station.” Frog Lady sat, slipped off her heels and rubbed her feet. “How’ve you been coping, Teri?”
      “I’m great. I write in my journal all the time.”
      “What about your replacement behavior? How’s that going?”
      “Fucking awesome, I’m experimenting with a bunch of sounds.”
      Frog Lady bobbled her head and checked her cell phone. With her shoes off, I could see she had some weird hieroglyph tattoo on her heel. I was going to ask her about it. But she started talking about making amends.
      “Is there anyone you harmed in your past that you should apologize to?” she asked me, taking out the Tarot deck on her coffee table and shifting the cards from one hand to the other.
      “I dunno. My old band director maybe,” I said. “I called him a Nazi once.”
      Frog Lady’s phone rang and she excused herself from the room. I got up and wandered over to her desk. She had a brochure about teaching English in Cambodia and an application to volunteer in Sudan. That’s funny. I can’t really picture her anywhere but that exact office. And maybe the courtroom now that I’ve seen her in the suit. She came back in and didn’t even say anything about me being behind her desk. She ended the session early.
      Now I’m at home eating Cheese Doodles, watching online tuba videos and looking for a good deal on a used tuba. I know I said I wouldn’t look low, but I’m rethinking that position. If any instrument can hit the brown note, it’s the tuba. The problem is, no one really notices the tuba. It’s never a solo instrument. You only truly hear tuba music if you play tuba. Which I used to do for about a month.
      It was right when my parents got a divorce. My dad moved down the street into a house that was a mirror image of my mom’s. Everything there was both familiar and fucked up. My ass clamped up at his house. I couldn’t shit there. My mom wouldn’t let me in her house, said she needed “me time.” So I held everything in during weekends at his place. That’s when the constipation started. Once I started holding it in I couldn’t let go.
      Mom said it was anxiety over the divorce. She suggested artistic release and exercise. So I joined the high school marching band—exercise and art in one serving. The first time my breath made its way down the pipes of a tuba, my ass unclenched. I snuggled in the curve of the horn.
      When I brought the tuba home, my mother looked disturbed. “Oh, that noise! Did you have to pick the most flatulent-sounding instrument known to man?” she asked, peering at the instrument over her reading glasses. I went to my dad’s. No support there either. “The tuba?” he said. “There’s no money in tubas. Name one famous tubist. Is that even a job? Carrying that thing is going to make you hunch-backed.”
      I think my parents called the school and complained. Because the band director tried to put me on the xylophone. As soon as he asked me to return my tuba, I felt a dark stoppage inside.
      “Who died and made you the grand Fuhrer of the marching band?” I asked. “What’s next, goose-stepping to the fight song? Maybe we should just sit around and play Wagner all day.” Then I told him to take his xylophone and shove it up his Nazi ass.
      I got kicked out of band and suspended. I felt like shit. But the other kids thought I was bad-ass for calling the band director out. So I acted like I didn’t care. Even though all I really wanted was to apologize and beg to rejoin the band so I could be back inside the whorl of the tuba.

Entry 5:

      Today I got a gig DJing a wedding way out in Albemarle County. I met with the couple and tried to sell them on some trip-hop, some psy-trance beats. But once you get that far from the university, they usually want country music—Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, maybe a little Taylor Swift mixed in for the kids. It’s kinda lame, but I don’t mind. It’s not like I know anyone in those circles. I was hired on the spot. That’s when my face hardware and tats pay off. To them, I’m a big city DJ.
      The drive home took me past the Sea Oak Trailer Park where I honed my taste in country music. Also where I used to score meth. I felt the little tug when I saw the sign. I tried to jerk my mind away, so I focused on a strange noise from my dashboard, kind of like a rattling buzz that took over the whole car. I turned off the radio and let the buzz go deep in my head. If I listened hard enough, if I plowed down to the root of the sound, maybe I’d find the brown note there.
      If the brown note were something you could touch, it would be meth. Nothing moves inside me without it. It’s like I’m addicted to Ex-Lax and enemas instead.
      Fuuuuuck. Meth. I kinda miss it.
      I haven’t used since night I got arrested. Jenna and I were trolling college bars with our fake IDs, getting boys to buy us Sex on the Beach shooters because it was the only drink we knew. After last call we crammed into an all-night sandwich shop. I scarfed down a Philly cheesesteak and waited in line behind a kajillion sorority girls in tube dresses to do a bump. Just to level out the alcohol and help the sandwich digest. Not really any different than the aperitifs my mother had with her douche-bag boyfriend from the Classics Department. Not really any different than the joints my father shared with the Art History grad student he was shacked up with, the one who never even learned my name.
      That night the problem was–the meth was way too effective. I had to go immediately after I stepped out of the deli’s single stall. And the line had grown even longer, even slower. Then to top it off, the toilet overflowed.
      “Let’s go over to the university,” I said to Jenna. “I’m gonna declare my independence from shit right on Mr. Jefferson’s lawn.”
      We crossed the street giggling all the way. I found a spot, squatted and shouted: “LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF POOP!” Jenna cheered. She got a Cavalier Daily and crumpled it up over my shit. She took some kindling and logs from the stacked firewood used to heat the old-timey student rooms on The Lawn. Then she handed me a lighter and a small bottle of hairspray from her purse. I made a hairspray blow torch like we did a few summers ago at her parents’ lake house and lit that shit up. It was pretty under control until we stole an antique rocking chair from outside one of the rooms. We added the chair, more wood, and ten more Cavalier Dailies. Then Jenna ran off for a fire extinguisher and never came back. For some reason, I thought I could fight the fire all by myself. I was so busy trying to smother the flames with my jacket that I didn’t see the campus police officer until he was right on me. He cuffed me and made me watch as the firemen hosed down the blaze.
      They found the meth. I had just turned eighteen so I was charged as an adult and they threw the book at me. My mugshot made the cover of The Cavalier Daily right beside a photo of the blazing rocking chair. I was expelled from school. And I was forced to report to Frog Lady, to do whatever she says, like she’s the one with all the answers.

Entry 6:

      Today I printed out a map of the steam tunnels I found online and walked to the UVA campus. I kept my eyes on the ground the whole time. Looking.
      Before I did drugs, I never saw them, never noticed them. Now I see them everywhere. In the watery gleam of a guy across MacDonalds’ who makes too many trips to the bathroom. In the constant sniffle and clammy palms of a cashier who hands me back my change. But mostly I see it on the ground—in the short straws and empty baggies in gutters and on sidewalks. On my way to UVA today, I saw two little baggies. I knew there was residue on them. That if I picked them up and licked them they might be meth and I might get right for a minute.
      But there were too many people around. So I kept going. I had to get to the steam tunnels. I had to search for the brown note. And the tunnels seemed like the kind of place a girl like me could find a sound like that.
      I located a manhole near the Lawn. I tried to lift it off. I’m pretty strong from hauling all my DJ equipment and I got it to budge a little on my second heave. That’s when a campus cop spotted me.
      “Young lady, it’s dangerous to go down there,” he said. “And it’s trespassing. You could get arrested.”
      “Oh, hey,” I straightened up and smiled. “I dropped my gum on the manhole. I was just scraping it off.”
      He squinted at me.
      “Aren’t you the professor’s kid who…”
      I split before he finished. I don’t want to hear that ancient history again. I didn’t stop running for a half-mile. Then I called the Frog Lady. She answered.
      “Can I come in today?” I panted.
      “Are you thinking of using?”
      “No, no. I just want to talk.”
      “I’m in court. Where are you now?”
      “I’m near the university.”
      “I can meet you in an hour. In the meantime, are you with anyone you can talk to?”
      “Yeah,” I lied. “I’m not alone.”
      I hung up, walked back to campus and went to the steam tunnel grate where I thought I heard the girl voice that one time. I laid down on the sidewalk, pressed my face to the cool iron and shouted: HEELLLOOOO. I heard a small hello back. This time I knew it was just an echo. I stayed still for a while, murmuring into the tunnel, students stepping around me on their way to class. Then I got up and walked to Frog Lady’s office. Her secretary wasn’t there, so I just busted in. She was in her suit playing with the Tarot cards. She looked up, surprised with red teary eyes.
      “Oh,” she said softly. “I wasn’t ready for you just yet.”
      “Should I go?”
      “No, no. Sit.”
      “What are you doing?” I asked.
      “A Tarot card reading.”
      “Can you do one on me?” I asked.
      “Why the hell not?” she said. “Sit on the other side of the coffee table.”
      “So how does this work?” I asked. “Do I need to ask you a question or something?”
      “I think that would help the reading. What’s on your mind?”
      “I’ve been thinking about my replacement behavior.”
      “What’s that again?”
      “I’m looking for the brown note.”
      Frog Lady’s eyes widened.
      “Sorry, what? I thought you were doing something with music?”
      “Yeah, trying to find the brown note.”
      “Does that even exist?” she asked. “I thought it was an urban legend.”
      “Does it matter? I just said I was gonna look for it. I never said I was gonna find it.”
      Frog Lady grabbed her notepad like she was going to write something down. Then she shook her head, dropped her pen and picked up the Tarot deck. She shuffled the cards and placed three on the table. The third was blank.
      “What does that mean?” I asked.
      “The first is the Empress. The mother energy card. The second is the Emperor, a father card. And the third is a blank that comes with the deck. I should have removed it before we started. Let’s try again. I’m going to pull one card this time.”
      She pushed the blank card aside, shuffled and slapped The Fool on the table.
      “What does that mean?” I asked. Frog Lady grabbed a book and started paging through it.
      “The Fool can signify the beginning of a journey. Does that mean anything to you?”
      “Not really. And aren’t you supposed to be the one telling me what things mean?”
      “That’s not how Tarot works. It’s meditative not predictive. You need to be engaged.”
      She pulled three more cards—The Empress, The Emperor and the blank again.
      “I thought you put that away!” I said.
      “I did. It got back in the mix somehow. I think it means something.”
      “I don’t.”
      “You pulled the same three cards in the same order twice. The odds are low for that. I think the blank means something about the brown note.”
      “No offense, but I think it means you’re not very good at Tarot.”
      “Yeah, I’m not really good at a lot of things.” Frog Lady laughed and laughed way too long. Then her face blanked. She wiped her eyes with a tissue, crossed her legs and picked up her notepad again.
      “So what happened today? Why did you call me?” she said.
      “No reason. I was just around and thought I’d say hi. What were you doing in court?”
      “A client relapsed. She’s back in jail.”
      “That kinda sucks,” I said.
      “It happens a lot. It sucks a lot,” Frog Lady said. And she started laughing and laughing again.
      As I left, she handed me the blank card.
      “Just so I never pull it again,” she said.
      I took the card, shoved it my jeans pocket and walked home. I kept my eyes on the ground, but I wasn’t thinking about meth. I was thinking about What’s going on beneath the surface. I’m getting in those steam tunnels. Tomorrow.

Entry 7:

      I waited until dark to go to the university. I found a manhole cover at the edge of campus with no one around. I jacked it open with a crowbar from my dad’s garage. There were rungs mounted on the wall and I climbed down. There’s decent lighting. The heat’s really intense though. And you gotta bend, squat, and jump because of beams and pipes that could take you down.
      There’s writing all on the walls. Not just official stuff like DANGER and ASBESTOS and HOT PRESSURIZED STEAM but stuff from others before me like JOHNNY LUVS KELLY. And SIGMA PHI RULEZ. And nasty stuff about Virginia Tech.
      Lots of bugs and rats too, but no big deal, I expected that. I wandered around for a while getting my bearings and recording. I got lots of steam hisses, some pipes clunking and sounds coming from the grates, where you can see little slices of the world through the iron slats.
      After an hour, I saw another person—a girl staring at graffiti that said: GO TO SLEEP IN FIRE, WAKE UP IN WATER. Whatever the fuck that means. She was the right kind of tall, the right kind of thin and had the face that everyone wants—like a baby and a cat had a baby.
      We said hi. Her name’s Ally. She’s a third year religion major.
      “What are you doing here?” she asked.
      “Looking for something,” I said. “What are you doing?”
      “Looking for Jesus,” she said.
      “Are you in a cult or something?”
      “Not regular Jesus,” she laughed. “Steam Tunnel Jesus.”
      And she said she’d show me Jesus if I wanted, and if she could find him. I said okay, because it was a creepy down there and she seemed older and like she knew what she was doing.
      We walked and Ally talked about how she was afraid she might be pregnant, how she was afraid she might be flunking, how she was afraid her mother might get cancer. She talked a lot about her ex and his new TriDelt girlfriend Katelyn. I wasn’t sure how to talk to a college girl, so I stayed quiet and said “What a skank!” whenever Katelyn’s name came up.
      I mostly kept my eyes on the ground so I didn’t trip. When I saw an empty baggie with white residue between my feet I came to a full stop. If I’d been alone I would have taken that shit and licked it. But instead I just stared and thought about licking it. I tried to think about the brown note. It didn’t work. I was too close to the baggie and too far from the brown note. I reached in my jeans pocket for something to hold. The Tarot card was there from the other day and I grabbed it pretty tight. I guess I looked funny or was breathing weird because Ally asked if I was okay.
      “Not really,” I said.
      “Is it the heat?” she asked.
      “Yeah, the heat,” I said.
      “It gets to everybody down here.”
      And she gave me some water and held my hand and we walked like that for a long time, only stopping so Ally could check her map. And after a while, we found Jesus.
      Steam Tunnel Jesus is really just a face painted over a grey cinder block wall. He’s mostly blue but with little color streaks woven in. He doesn’t look particularly nice or mean, but just kinda stares with big eyes. There’s a Bible verse painted beside him, not the full thing, just ROMANS 6:14-15.
      “They say when you find Jesus, you’re not far from the football stadium,” Ally said. “We’ll climb out here and we should be inside it.”
      There were rungs going up the wall next to Jesus and a manhole leading out. Ally said it’s a good thing she found me. That manhole covers were pretty heavy for just one girl and it was way harder to get out of the tunnels than into them.
      We took a break right there in front of Jesus. I sat with my ass in a puddle and steam burning my face. She asked me if I knew what the Bible verse was.
      “How would I know? You’re the religion major,” I said.
      “I’m a bad one,” Ally said. “I study religion because I flunked out of philosophy.”
      “Look it up when you leave,” I suggested.
      “My brain’s such a rat’s nest. I’ll never remember it,” she shrugged.
      “So you really wanna find the stadium,” I said. “You must love football.”
      “Nah, I hate it,” Ally said. “But sometimes it’s just nice to find something.”
      I scrounged around in my backpack for a pen and some paper. I found a pen, but no paper. So I wrote ROMANS 6:14-15 on the Tarot card.
      When we climbed out, we weren’t in the stadium. But we weren’t far from it. Before we parted ways, I gave the Tarot card to Ally. In case it means something. So she’d remember it. So she’d remember me.

Entry 8:

      Today I searched my mom’s whole house for a Bible, then my dad’s and I finally found one in his study. I flipped straight to Romans and looked up the verses. They say:

For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under law, but under grace.

What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.

      Seems like it starts kinda nice and ends kinda preachy. Otherwise I got no fucking clue what it means. I’m not sure I even care. I just wanted to find it.
      I kept flipping through the book to feel its heft in my hands and the gilded edges between my fingers. And I saw my birth announcement tucked into the pages.

Randall and Dr. Gina Loftin-Price are delighted to announce the arrival of a baby girl—Theresa Maria. May she always be happy and healthy. May she always know she is loved.

      I pulled the birth announcement out and put it in my jeans pocket.

Entry 9:

      What the fuck? I’m getting a new drug counselor. Frog Lady quit. She’s going to Goa to study trance spirituality.
      “But she’s my headshrinker,” I wailed to the court administrator who called with the news. “What am I gonna do without her?”
      “Burnout’s high in this field. You keep getting arrested for drugs, you’ll get used to it.” The woman hung up the phone.
      I raced to Frog Lady’s office. It was unlocked. No one was there. Some things were gone—the Tarot cards, the Zodiac posters, her yellowed philodendron. But her raggedy brown cardigan hung on the back of her desk chair.
      I reached in my pocket. My birth announcement was there. I grabbed a pen from her desk. And I wrote:

Dear Frog Lady Ms. Finger,

Why the fuck did you leave me? Hope you find what you’re looking for over in Goa. What am I gonna do without you? I’m gonna keep looking for the brown note. I’m gonna keep writing in my journal. I’m not sure I can do this all on my own. Thanks for the Tarot card. It came in handy.


DJ MisTeRi KaOs, Teri the Fool.

      I put the note in the pocket of the cardigan. Maybe Frog Lady left the sweater behind forever. And even if she does come back for it, she’ll probably wash my note to shreds in the laundry. Or throw it in the trash without really looking. But it’ll be there—for a while at least–for her to find. If she looks for it.

Jessica Walker - photo for Word Riot (2)About the author:

Jessica Walker’s short stories can be found in Stoneboat Literary Journal and Sixfold. She has been a finalist in Blue Mesa Review’s Fiction Contest, Glimmer Train’s New Writer Award, Southwest Review’s Meyerson Contest and the Thomas Wolfe Award for Short Fiction. When she’s not writing, Jessica enjoys dabbling in glass art, inveterate wandering and hanging with her dog, Fritz.

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