The Music You Never Hear
by Quinn Dalton
Issue #61 • August 20, 2005•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
Dobi came to help when Martha started dying. Martha had been sick before, and he was used to what that looked like, her eyes over-focused with pain and then medicine-blank. Then, her needs were simple—broth, painkillers, the TV kept low. His daughters took care of most of it. They were grown and married, with children of their own, but they took turns sitting with her until Dobi came for the night, because he was still on the road then, home only on weekends, his suitcase smelling of hot pavement and hotel rooms.
Dobi was nineteen. She wasn’t a nurse really, just a housekeeper who was willing to sleep at white people’s houses. You couldn’t find many white women willing to stay overnight, and the ones who would took to stealing the drugs, a pill or two at a time. He came home from one trip to find Martha sleeping on shit-smeared sheets. Dobi had never let anything like that happen. She kept the house smelling of Pine Sol and spray starch. She had even graduated from high school, not typical. Later she told him, when he asked if she’d ever thought of leaving, that she’d wanted to go to nursing school, but the nearest one was two states away, and she was the youngest and the only daughter, her brothers off married or working, and so it was understood she would be the one to care for her parents.
Quinn Dalton is the author of a novel, High Strung (Atria Books, 2003), and a story collection, Bulletproof Girl (Washington Square Press, April 2005). Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in literary magazines such as ACM (Another Chicago Magazine), The Baltimore Review, Cottonwood, Emrys Journal, Gargoyle, Glimmer Train, The Kenyon Review, Indiana Review, Ink, Mangrove and StoryQuarterly, and in anthologies such as Sex and Sensibility and American Girls About Town. She won the Pearl 2002 Fiction Prize for her short story, “Back on Earth” and received a North Carolina Arts Council 2002-2003 artist fellowship.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
QD: Usually my ideas come from a daydreamed image, snippets of overheard conversation, stories friends have told me, or something I’ve read or seen on TV. But I can’t think of the trigger for this story. I wrote most of it one morning during a Christmas visit to my parents’ house in Ohio and finished it in the car on the way home (my poor husband always has driving duty so I can write, edit or force him to listen to early drafts). Normally I write on the computer but when I make short trips I don’t like to take my laptop if I can avoid it, so I just use a notebook. This story sat in the notebook for the better part of a year before I came back to it and started revising it as I typed it.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
QD: I don’t normally write historical fiction, and these are not typical characters for me. So I guess I felt the effort of being true to them more consciously than I have with other stories—maybe that’s a good thing.
HT: Why did you choose to set this story in 1953? Was it difficult to get the details right?
QD: I set the story in the pre-civil rights, pre-integration era to raise the stakes. Certainly today, a man having an affair with his dying wife’s caretaker and then dealing with the consequences—well, that has its own weight, but when you inject the politics of race during that time, it increases the risks for Ned and Dobi and their son.
HT: Dobi is such a strong presence in the story, and yet much of her character is shown through small actions and descriptions, rather than dialogue. Can you talk a bit about how you developed her character?
QD: Dobi is a mystery to Ned, one that he doesn’t think very much about until their affair happens. So I had to show her the way he could see her—in gestures, short conversations. Also I showed her as a contrast in his life—how she looks moving around in his house compared to his wife, how she sees her future compared to his daughters, who were assured an education and a future in society as wives and mothers. So much that happens is beyond her control, so I felt it was important to show how she handles all these limitations. The one choice she makes is to comfort Ned by making love to him—a huge and frightening decision that changes both of their lives.
HT: Ned mentions both Martha and Dobi “saving” him. Is his faith changed, in this story? Does he reach a kind of salvation, in the end? Or is he being forced to confront his demons in the final moment, when he falls to his knees?
QD: The final moment of the story is a moment of truth for Ned. He has to go through it in order to achieve some kind of salvation, or even to make peace with himself. I believe he is heading in the right direction.
HT: Why did you title this story, “The Music You Never Hear”?
QD: The moment when Martha compares her faith to the composer who is driven by a music he could never quite hear—this is the essence of the story for me. Faith—and salvation—are elusive, perhaps unattainable, compared to the reality of how we live our lives.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
QD: Fred Chappell once said about revision, “Sometimes when you mow the lawn, you have to cut some violets.” Revision is where a story is made. What you take out is as important as what you put in. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of a beautiful sentence, but you have to decide if it serves the story.
HT: What are you working on now?
QD: I’ve finished another collection of stories, called Perfectland, which includes “The Music You Never Hear.” I hope to get back to a novel once I get a little more sleep—my second daughter was born July 22.