That summer I would ride my bike over the bridge, lock it up in front of one of the bars on Orchard Street and drift through the city on foot, recording. People and places. Sidewalk smokers, lovers’ quarrels, drug deals. I wanted to store the world and play it back just as I’d found it, without change or addition. I collected audio of thunderstorms, music coming out of cars, the subway trains rumbling underfoot; it was all reality, a quality I had lately begun to crave, as if I were deficient in some necessary vitamin or mineral. I had a binaural setup, two little mics in my ears that looked like headphones, a portable recorder clipped to my belt under my shirt. It was discreet. No one ever noticed. I could roam where I liked and then ride home and listen back through Carter’s thousand-dollar headphones at the studio. There were always phenomena I hadn’t registered, pockets of sound I’d moved through without knowing.

Every sound wave has a physiological effect, every vibration. I once heard a field recording of a woman singing, sitting on a porch. You could hear her foot tapping, keeping time. You could hear the creak of her rocking chair, the crickets in the trees. You could tell it was evening because of the crickets. I felt I was slipping, that if I wasn’t careful I’d lose my grip on the present and find myself back there, seventy or eighty years in the past. The rough board floor, the overhang of the roof, her voice traveling through the moist heavy air to the diaphragm of the microphone, its sound converted into electrical energy, frozen, then the whole process reversed, electricity moving a speaker cone, sound spilling into my ears and connecting me to that long-ago time and place. I could feel it flow, that voice, inhabiting the cavities of my body, displacing the present like water lling a cistern.

I heard Charlie Shaw on one of those recording walks. It was evening. I don’t remember why I’d gone out. Perhaps I couldn’t sleep—that happened. Perhaps I just needed to be outside or spend some time on my own. I often felt claustrophobic after long sessions; we could spend twelve hours in the studio without coming up for air. It was hot, the stifling New York heat that empties the city on July and August weekends. My shirt was clinging to my back. Passers-by were sheened in sweat, everyone desperate for the weather to break. I was recording by the chess tables in Washington Square. A guy called PJ, evidently the home favorite, was playing another man whose name I didn’t catch. They’d drawn a little crowd. There was money on the table. A bottle was being passed around.

PJ was one of the hustlers who sit at those tables day in day out, playing all-comers for ten bucks a time. He was a flabby white man in his fties or sixties with thick glasses and several plastic bags of nameless crap stashed under the bench. The other player was skinny and black, hard to say how old because his face was hidden under a baseball cap. He wore a clean white undershirt and baggy blue jeans. His bare arms were painfully thin, like two twists of fuse wire. This man was taking his time over his moves, enough for some of the onlookers to be muttering and telling him to make up his mind. He ignored them. Unlike PJ, who was chatting to his buddies, he kept his head down and seemed absorbed in the game. He was a good player and soon he forced PJ to give up a knight, then his queen. There goes my rent money, said PJ to anyone who’d listen. He was stuck on the phrase, repeating it until it became a tic. Each bad move: there goes my rent money, there it goes. Something about the stranger was making the spectators nervous too. He would reach over the table, settle his long ngers on a piece, move it, then suddenly bring his palm slapping down on the clock. Each time he did it, an audible flinch traveled through the crowd. Coughing, keys fondled in pockets. He was killing PJ, showing no mercy. They didn’t like it.

Mate in two, said the thin man, almost under his breath. Around the board, people fell silent. PJ nodded glumly and knocked down his king with a forefinger. Shoot, he said, now what am I going to do? As his friends gathered around to commiserate, the stranger counted his winnings, a wad of small bills. I was already turning away when I heard him sing. It was a blues, just a line. Believe I buy a graveyard of my own, he sang. Then he ran it again.

Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own

On the audio, I can hear the change in the position of my head, the mics over each ear picking up a slightly different range as I swing round to listen. I don’t know how to explain what happens next. My memory is clear. There was a skater, a girl. You can hear the rumble of a deck, but it’s in the background. I distinctly remember turning to watch her. I saw long black hair, tattooed sleeves, a nice ass in cutoffs, weaving between dog walkers. How would I know that if I hadn’t turned? But the audio shows I didn’t. The singer remains in the same spot. I remember that when I turned back, the game had broken up. It felt strange. It had only taken a few seconds for the girl to pass, but already the players and specta- tors were gone, the tables completely deserted. At the time, I didn’t think too much about it. I was hungry, so I walked over to Sixth Avenue to get a slice.

Excerpted from White Tears by Hari Kunzru. Copyright 2017 by Hari Kunzru. Published in March by Alfred A. Knopf. All rights reserved.

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