A Serial: Episode 6
K. felt unsettled after the encounter with Art and Jerry. Their brawl was unpleasant to witness, and at such close range could even have been dangerous. But more disturbing to K. was that it reminded him of his meeting with Frieda. She, too, had been looking for him in particular, though he could not imagine why.
It was near noon, an hour K. often found himself thinking of Frieda because of the timing of her singular visit. When he returned to the office, a nostalgic tune was playing. Lately K. had noticed that the quality of the music in his office changed with the hour of day - even, it sometimes seemed to him, with his differing activities. Now a mellow mix of woodwinds introduced a World War II-era crooner, delivering his ballad with vibrato to establish sincerity, but not enough to sell the emotion in his words.
A rose must remain with the sun and the rain
Or its lovely promise won’t come true
To each his own, to each his own
And my own is you
The logic, as well as the singer’s detached tone, gave K. pause. If my own were you, would each still have his or her own? Or is ownership of another a dissolution of both, a transformation where each and own are no longer distinguishable? Such a union brought Art and Jerry back to mind, but K. decided they were too distinct to illustrate it accurately. In their stead, he hit upon the idea of a snake that had swallowed its tail, coiling into an ever smaller point.
This mysterious image would apply only if the each and own were mutual, K. reasoned. If my own is you, but your own is not me, then the snake would be swallowing not itself but another. To an observer, that postprandial snake might appear unremarkable, there would be no transformation from the encounter. Except, thought K. with a shudder, the own would have disappeared completely from the scene, consumed by the each.
The singer continued:
What good is a song if the words don’t belong
And a dream must be a dream for two
A surprisingly chipper male choir joined in for the refrain:
No good alone to each his own
For me there’s you
K. took note of the change this presented. The end of the first chorus - “My own is you,” with its promise of mystical transformation - had become a simple statement of desire: “For me there’s you.” In the surface noise of the old recording, K. now heard the hissing of the snake. The middle eight that followed belonged to its leathery voice, the voice of the each:
If a flame is to grow there must be a glow
To open each door there’s a key
I need you I know, I can’t let you go
The turnaround was a desperate last cry from the own:
Your touch means too much to me!
K. felt drained. As he slumped in his chair, the band took over the melody, bashing it out to give the dancers a boost until a solo sax reclaimed it for melancholy. The final chorus was epilogue, sung by the sated snake (with backing chorus):
Two lips must insist on two more to be kissed
Or they’ll never know what love can do
To each his own, I’ve found my own
One and only you
Loneliness had won the day, though not without a struggle.
When K. looked up, Frieda was in the doorway. His expression lagged behind his nervous system, so although he was feeling surprise to the point of shock, Frieda saw a blank stare. She stared back.
Frieda’s stare chased K.’s surprise back inward, the initial message never reached his muscles. His shock, driven beneath the skin and toward the heart, froze him to the core. After a few moments, he realized he could not move. Frieda continued to stare.
Never letting go of his eyes with hers, she moved toward one of the filing cabinets against the walls, and opened it deliberately. Only then did she release K.’s gaze, turning to look at the folders within.
“You dust the files?” she said, casually. Her tone had no relation to her body language, which was alert as an animal. But her speech was the lazy chat of a bored co-worker. “I have never seen such clean files. When did you last open this?”
The direct question freed K.’s tongue. He knew the answer. “Last week,” he said. “I dust all the files, in a rotating pattern that begins to the left of the door from your point of view - stage right, you might say. That case is the first I dust in the sequence, which began again last week.” K.’s thoroughness was automatic, and allowed him to speak fluently about such a topic even though his initial message of surprise at seeing Frieda was now finally reaching his extremities, which began to tremble slightly. He stammered his next remark, which wasn’t as automatic: “Do you keep files too?” he asked, in what he felt was an effort at personal engagement.
Frieda didn’t answer until she had flipped through the entire top drawer. She opened the next one down. “It’s a hobby,” she said over her shoulder. “To each his own.”
K. was startled again, this time by her words. As Frieda flipped through the rest of the first filing cabinet to the left of the door, K. felt his memory being fanned through as well. Was there a thumb tab with this phrase, he wondered? Was there a file with his name on it?
While Frieda continued to search the files, K.’s mind returned to his earlier days at the facility. The messengers that used to deliver his salary appeared before him, in their various outfits appropriate to motorcycle transport and the changing weather. In winter, one would appear bound into gear so tightly it seemed momentum alone kept him upright, as he stiffly entered the room, handed K. his envelope, and pivoted back out like a trolley turned round at the end of the line. In autumn, the rider always looked windswept even though he never removed his helmet, with leaves and dust following him in and out of the room. In summer, K. would take note of the various pads which slowly emerged from under heavier cover, revealing a protective structure more than the body itself. In spring the messenger often arrived wet or, worse yet for the office, covered in mud, sometimes with goggles splattered so thoroughly K. wondered if the rider even saw him, rising from his chair and accepting the envelope with a courteous nod that K. intended as a gesture of camaraderie between the two halves of this operation: one static (K.), the other in constant returning motion, like an asteroid.
“What do you remember of Barnabas?” asked Frieda, still flipping through files with a rhythm that seemed to have put K. into a trance. He looked up - though he did not know what he had been looking down at - and Frieda turned to meet his eyes.
“Barnabas?” he said, helplessly. “I don’t think I have ever known anyone by that name.”
“You may not have known his name, but you knew him,” said Frieda, matter-of-factly. Her confidence was contagious. K. immediately felt sure he had known a Barnabas. But that seemed to be all he knew about the matter. Frieda coached him:
“The messenger, the envelope...”
K. felt blinded for a moment, as he realized the messengers of those years might all have been one. He never spoke to them, so he could not distinguish their voices. He never saw their eyes, at least not clearly, due to the goggles. And what he took to be various bodies might only have been different costumes, as the seasons and weather changed. Barnabas? K. tried to match the name to all the messengers of his memory. He found no discordance - like the landlady, who appeared in K.’s mind as so many landladies, K. had multiplied the Barnabases, filing each of his appearances under a different heading: Messenger 1, Messenger 2, and so on, until the messengers stopped appearing.
“But what happened to Barnabas?” he asked Frieda, at the end of this internal adjustment.
Frieda’s eyes narrowed. “You keep secrets, don’t you, K.?”
K. could not tell if she was asking him to keep a secret, or if she was accusing him of having withheld information. He waited for her next statement, to clarify the situation.
But Frieda said nothing further, she returned to the files. K.’s mind returned to Barnabas. Had they never spoken to one another? In the very back of the Barnabas drawer, K. found a single encounter - could it have been the first? - that included language. It was a messenger whose lower face had been visible, it must have been in fair weather. The beard was dark but thin. The lips were delicate, curled in what K. took to be a mean expression until he heard the voice they helped shape: sing-songy, lingering on tones in a flexible rhythm based neither on the syllable nor stress but on what K. later learned is called “mora.”
It was in fact the file of research that K. had undertaken on mora which finally halted Frieda’s march of information.