I’m a librarian, so of course I was picking melted plastic out of the 3D printer when I heard the news that Maisie Martin had died.
I wandered out of the maker space, past the robotics lab, around the VR cave, into the music studio. We do have books in this library, lots of them. But these days, we have more than books.
Maisie was dead, so it was time, at last, to break down the synthesizer.
3D printers, LEGO robots, VR goggles: these offerings are not, among well-funded public libraries, uncommon. The Big Red Synthesizer is, by contrast, unique. Before it was Maisie’s instrument, it was my headache.
The music studio, I could handle. Generally, it was reserved by various squads of scruffy teens. They howled and tittered behind the glass and left the production computer’s keyboard greasy with Cheeto dust.
Every so often, one of them would spy the Big Red Synthesizer, enormous, as long as a Fiat, parked against the back wall of the studio control room. It was a fugitive from the 1970s, ancestor to the tools inside the production computer. Packed with knurled knobs set beside pulsing LEDs, it might have been ripped from the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. Every so often, one of the teens would creep out of the studio to ask: Hey, uh… how do you use that thing?
I would confess: I didn’t know. The synthesizer’s markings, “VCO” and “VCF” and “LFO,” were as inscrutable as an ancient tablet. Jacks yawned open, ready to receive the cables draped over hooks on the wall. According to what logic would those cables be inserted? I had barely weathered the transition to USB-C. I had no idea.
The teens would fiddle. Generally, their efforts produced only silence, and they retreated back into the computer. Once, a girl with stringy hair and long fingers summoned a yowling square wave, so banshee-pure that it punched through the soundproofing and filled the library. I jogged to quiet the noise, but she pulled the plug before I arrived, frightened by her own sound.
There was, as far as I knew, just one patron who understood the use of the Big Red Synthesizer, and her expertise made up for all our ignorance.
Maisie Martin, 83 years old, was a virtuoso.
Her career had bloomed and faded before the internet, so there wasn’t much to find about her, except the stub of a page on the university website naming her a Professor, Emeritus in classics. She had written a book about the muses, far too obscure to be included in our collection. Her hair was cut short, her expression set serious, but she was never unkind. She simply had things to do.
Maisie kept a schedule. Wednesdays were library days; synthesizer days. After being delivered by a young chauffeur, she would walk slowly to the front desk and sign her name in the studio logbook, her handwriting smooth and elegant. (The scruffy teens could barely make letters.) After she disappeared inside, there would, for twenty or thirty minutes, be silence. Maisie was plugging the right cables into the right jacks, rebuilding her composition.
I’d once spied her through the glass, consulting her notebook. She had reproduced the face of the Big Red Synthesizer in neat lines, photocopying the drawing dozens of times; on each copy, in red ink, she drew the paths of the cables as she plugged them in.
I asked her once how she composed for the synthesizer, and she replied:
“For a piano, you write a song. For a synthesizer, you invent a patch. I have been working on my patch.”
It made her sound like a farmer.
Every Wednesday, after she had rebuilt her patch, she started it playing. I could hear it only faintly through the soundproofing. The bass pushed through in big, slow waves.
Sometimes the scruffy teens would be waiting when Maisie emerged. She would give them a curt nod, and they would nod back. Neither camp seemed particularly impressed by the other.
What was Maisie making in there? There’s a code of honor among librarians: let patrons do their thing. The patrons who wanted to tell you, told you; they could not, in fact, be quieted. Yusuf Naber’s research on penguin behavior was undertaken largely, if not totally, for the opportunity to report its daily progress to the librarians. (Yusuf was ten.)
As for the rest? Brilliant Ayesha Rossi built stacks of history books, one age leading her to the next and the next as she rebuilt the whole story of humanity in her head. Ubiquitous Barbara Turner wormed her way through the mystery shelves, following a path as circuitous as an Agatha Christie plot. These patrons' intentions, I did not know. I only saw their outermost contours, in the shape of resources requested.
Maisie Martin’s contour was a straight line. Every Wednesday, she came. Every Wednesday, she built her patch, nudged it along, broke it down.
Every Wednesday except for one.
It was the library’s policy that you should leave the studio as you found it. I reminded the scruffy teens of this policy again—and again—and again. I swiped my fingers across the keyboard, showed them the orange glow. They shrugged and smirked and promised to do better.
Maisie needed no such reprimand. In fact, she overdid it. No one else used the Big Red Synthesizer; she could have left it configured, the tangle of cables dripping in place, spaghetti-like, from one Wednesday to the next. But always, after thirty minutes of reconstruction and an hour of work, she spent her final thirty minutes removing all the cables and hanging them neatly on the wall, arranged in order of ascending length, from six inches to four feet.
The closest I ever came to divining her purpose was the day I said to her: “Maisie, you can leave the cables plugged into the synthesizer, if you want. No one else uses it.”
She shook her head. “Oh, no. Building it helps me understand it. I wouldn’t get anywhere if I skipped that step.”
I should have known, therefore, that it was a Wednesday unlike any other—that the world was about to change—when, at the end of the day, I poked into the studio to turn off the lights, and found the synthesizer still wired up.
On the table in front of the machine, a piece of paper had been laid, folded into a little tent, and on it a a note was written in Maisie’s unmistakable script:
DO NOT DISTURB
UNTIL PLAYED FOR
Feeling weirdly panicked, I buttressed Maisie’s delicate note with a larger one, printed in the official library font, laminated with the official library laminator:
DO NOT TOUCH!
Surveying the tangle she’d left, I had no idea what it represented, but I was preemptively furious at the idea of a scruffy teen untangling it.
Maisie would come back and explain her purpose. Wouldn’t she?
When she missed her appointment the next Wednesday, it confirmed the feeling of dread that had settled around the synthesizer. I called her cell number, and the voice that picked up was not Maisie’s. The voice explained that Maisie’s cancer had worsened—I hadn’t known about any cancer—and that she was being treated at the university hospital in Kansas City. Someone spoke in the background, softly but with clipped confidence; Maisie herself.
“She wants to ask,” the voice said, “if you saw her note. Mom, what note?”
I told Maisie’s daughter to relay to her mother that the note had been seen.
That it was, furthermore, being acted upon.
That the laminator had been deployed.
That the library was at her service.
That we loved her.
The last part surprised me, and maybe Maisie’s daughter, too. She listened to her mother speak, then said: “She says to be careful around the… what, mom? The V-C-O. It's very precisely set.”
I was now devoted to the cause of satisfying our virtuoso's imperative: DO NOT DISTURB UNTIL PLAYED FOR KING OZY. This presented at least two questions.
First: how did one “play” the Big Red Synthesizer?
Second: who was “King Ozy”?
I approached the synthesizer, sat on the stool—more comfortable than expected—and groped for the power switch. As electricity flooded through the machine, it responded immediately, a car with no neutral gear, only drive. Light rippled across its face; sound flowed from its speakers.
What a sound.
A high, flute-like voice danced through impossible arpeggios above a middle layer of brassy peals, something out of the best 1980s pop song you’ve ever heard, all supported by an oceanic layer of bass. The patch’s key was deeply strange; it made me feel like my stool was missing a leg.
Then, as the patch proceeded, the flute-like voice fluttered even higher, and the bass dropped away, giving the impression of a bird soaring, wings wide, over the ocean—or perhaps of Wile E. Coyote poised above the canyon—until it returned to earth, with a sense of completion so firm and reassuring that it did something in my blood.
The patch was short, not more than forty seconds; it started over, but this time through, it was different. A dozen tiny variations. The machine looked so cold, but there was warmth and life in there, somehow. This calculator could jam.
I sat listening for five minutes. Maisie had composed this patch, sitting on this stool; or, not composed it, but—engineered it? Discovered it? Conjured it? You know you’re in new territory when your verbs fail.
Whatever she’d done, it was beautiful, and she’d done it here, in the studio I managed. So I turned, with added resolve, to my second challenge.
“King Ozy.” If a different patron had written it, I might suspect delusion, but Maisie Martin had to be taken seriously. So, I searched the internet, and my master’s degree in library science did not fail me. King Ozy was a real person, a music producer whose “glitch grime” genre was quickly becoming the sound of global pop music. I watched him perform at an electronic music festival, perched behind a laptop; I listened to him interviewed on a deep-delving podcast, invoking music as old as the 6th century, as fresh as last week. He seemed utterly erudite and impossibly cool. New questions arose:
How did Maisie Martin, age 83, know about King Ozy?
How did Maisie Martin, age 83, expect this patch to be played for him?
How might King Ozy (real name: Ousman Colley, age 34, resident of London) be contacted?
Here, my master’s degree was insufficient. I searched valiantly; used every trick in my arsenal; spent the afternoon scouring high-end legal databases; but King Ozy was well-shielded. Surely, he was being bombarded with beats and hooks and demo tapes constantly.
Just as surely, none of them had been composed by an 83-year-old genius.
At the library’s next staff meeting, in the period allotted for miscellaneous discussion, I recounted the story, presented my puzzle. As I spoke, my colleague Marcus’s eyes narrowed. Gears ground in his head. He was the library’s youth program manager, and also its voice on social media.
“Let me try,” Marcus said.
Two days later, at an hour chosen for its balance across time zones, Marcus posted, to the library’s account on a fast-growing algorithmic video platform, a short presentation that featured the Big Red Synthesizer as its star. Captions explained: an 83-year-old patron had produced on this machine a marvelous sound; she wanted to share this sound with the world’s most sought-after producer; fellow kids, could you please blow this up?
Cut to Maisie’s handwritten note.
Cut to the synthesizer, its audio output connected directly to Marcus’s phone, Maisie’s patch captured with perfect fidelity, soaring and booming.
Cut to the stacks, ubiquitous Barbara Turner in the foreground, browsing quietly, Maisie’s patch now a bassy muffle.
Cut back to the synthesizer, the studio now dimmed, a crushing close-up, LEDs pulsing red in the shadows. An alien god.
After he pressed “publish,” Marcus closed his eyes and placed his phone on the front desk, screen facing down. His face was calm. When he opened his eyes, there was a light in them that I imagined might have been seen in certain prophets in certain places at certain times. A cosmic confidence. “Thank you,” Marcus said quietly. “Thank you for bringing this to me.”
His phone began to vibrate.
The prophet had foreseen it: The young users of the fast-growing algorithmic video platform were charmed by Maisie’s note, wowed by her music. If there was, in their cheering commentary, a faint current of condescension: we’d take it.
A day passed. Another. Marcus’s phone vibrated non-stop, and the numbers spiraled skyward. Two million people had watched the video, which wasn’t the most ever for a Lawrence Public Library joint—Marcus was good at his job—but it was a lot.
@KingOzy LISTEN TO THIS, the kids insisted. @KingOzy U GOTTA FLIP THIS SAMPLE, they implored. @KingOzy Look at her handwriting 😭, they wept.
Three million views, and the curve began to flatten. Other videos, published by other Marcuses, were rising to take our place. You don’t get much time in the sun in this new world, and there was no quiet library shelf waiting for Marcus’s video; only oblivion, the algorithm’s compost pile.
Then, finally: he appeared. Early in the morning—late at night in London—the badged and verified @KingOzy arrived in the comment section, and there, he rendered his judgment:
I took one screenshot, then another, and another. I couldn’t stop taking screenshots. I would go to Maisie in Kansas City; I would show her these words; I would decrypt this slang. “You see, Maisie, when a young person uses the fire emoji in this context, they are declaring a track ‘fire,’ meaning it has a ‘hot,’ appealing sound, which they acknowledge is the result of great skill…”
Before I could do anything, Marcus appeared at my desk. The prophet’s eyes were bugging out of his head. Along with his public comment, Ousman Colley had sent a direct message. Marcus was in contact with the world’s foremost music producer, across time zones, across lifetimes.
“He wants Maisie’s number,” Marcus panted. “HE WANTS TO CALL HER.”
It is an iron law of librarianship that we cannot share patron information, even for benevolent purposes, even to the impossibly cool; so Marcus pledged to King Ozy that he would pass a phone number along to Maisie instead. This number he was given; it was alien, international, had too many digits. I sent it to Maisie's daughter. Everything felt like a dream.
King Ozy came to Lawrence.
There was a secret show at The Bottleneck; a possible sighting at The Raven Book Store; a rumored workshop with the School of Music. He did not deign to visit the library.
But before any of that came the reason for his visit: King Ozy visited Maisie in her hospice. I heard about it from Maisie’s daughter. What a scene it must have been, this character from the bleeding edge of global culture—from the future, basically—walking the pale green halls.
Maisie wasn’t surprised when he slithered into her room. She’d been expecting him.
“Where have you been hiding all this time?” Ousman Colley asked her. “We could have been making records ten years ago, gal.”
“I wasn’t hiding,” Maisie said. “I was learning.”
“Learning modular, at your age? Gal, that’s wild.”
“Why should I stop learning?” Maisie huffed. “You won’t stop, will you? Of course not. Imagine the things you’ll learn, still. You could even learn to use the Big Red Synthesizer.” She paused. Eyes glinting. “You’d have to get a library card, though.”
Her heart monitor went beep-beep-beep, the stupidest metronome.
“Why'd you want me to hear this?” King Ozy asked, quietly. “Me, of all people?”
“I’ve been listening to your music for years,” Maisie said. “It’s wonderful. The muses speak to you. I should know, I wrote a book about them.”
Osman Coulley opened his mouth to make a rejoinder, but then his face closed up, and then it crumpled a little, and he was silent, just looking at her.
After he found his voice again, and straightened his face, they talked for a while. About life, and losing it. Then, King Ozy stood, squeezed her hand. “You're a lovely gal,” he said. His face threatened to crumple again. “Thank you. Wish you wouldn’t have waited so long.”
“I told you,” she said. “I wasn’t waiting. I was learning.”
Summer faded. College students crowded back into town. Maisie hung in there. I visited her twice, both times feeling like I didn't have anything sufficiently interesting to say.
King Ozy's track In The Stacks (Maisie’s Tune) was released in October, and Maisie was alive to hear it. She nodded along to the beat, said she liked the lyrics. Detected the classical allusions.
The track was streamed avidly and endlessly, and it became one of the hits of the season. Articles were written about the unlikely origin of its central sample, and journalists called Maisie, but she was too ill to speak. They called the library, too, but we wouldn’t whisper a word about one of our patrons.
Maisie Martin died in November, while I was picking melted plastic out of the 3D printer.
So the time had come, at last, to disassemble Maisie’s patch. I powered up the synthesizer, heard it all again: soaring voice, rich peal, oceanic swell. It sounded, at last, like an entire life, summed up in one little forty-second loop that never quite repeated.
In The Stacks (Maisie’s Tune) earned a third of a penny each time it was streamed, and half of that third belonged to Maisie: a generous cut for a sample, but King Ozy had been charmed. Half of that share went to Maisie’s family, and the other half to the library foundation. Fractional pennies add up when you're the world's foremost music producer; by the first of December, a new robotics lab had been funded. Maisie’s gift would give and give.
I sat staring at the Big Red Synthesizer. I didn’t know how to take apart a patch. Was there a prescribed sequence? Testing, I wiggled some of the knobs, none more than a degree. The sound wavered, seemed to grow sharp or murky in ways that were mysterious but appealing. I wiggled again.
I understood how a person might spend a happy hour doing this.
The Big Red Synthesizer was not, I realized, foreboding; every touch earned a response, made its effect apparent in the sound. I still didn’t know what “VCO” or “VCF” or “LFO” meant, but, nudging at Maisie’s patch, I learned that the LFO controlled the slow undulations in the deepest bass. It was like waves coming into shore. When I gave it a twist, the surf was up.
I pulled one of the cables out, and with a gentle pop, the brassy peals went silent. It seemed tragic; impossible. But the patch had to go. The teens, having heard the celebrated sample on King Ozy's knockout track, now expressed guarded interest in learning how to use the synthesizer. I said that if one of them learned, I would pay them to teach classes. The girl with long fingers began watching tutorial videos.
Maisie would want other people to sit on this stool.
I pulled more cables, faster now, and the patch crumbled, the way a life does, sometimes; you remove an invisible support, and learn there was nothing waiting underneath it. For a while, you tumble, then you find your footing. You move to a new town. You get a master’s degree in library science.
Another cable came out, and another. Now, only the high, flute-like voice was left, dancing across those arpeggios. Maybe this part was Maisie’s own voice: her song, her argument, across the deep well of the world.
You can learn anything, the voice said. You can do whatever you want, if you do it every Wednesday, and clean up after yourself, and ask for help when you need it.
I lowered the volume, rose from the stool, turned off the lights, and shut the door. Maisie's tune would play through the night, looping, changing, making its case, over and over. It would seep into the walls of the studio and the scruffy teens would absorb it, whether they liked it or not.
In the morning, I would open the studio and pull the last cable, but I would not forget its argument, or the example of the woman who decided, in the final year of her life, to make the whole world sit up and listen.
I wouldn’t hide. I would learn.
I wouldn’t wait. I would learn.
ROBIN SLOAN is the author of the novels Sourdough and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, published by MCD in the United States, Tokyo Sogensha in Japan, and others around the world. He splits his time between the San Francisco Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley. His next novel is forthcoming from MCD.
BRAND NEW BOX is a digital product studio that builds new superpowers for high-performing teams. We like creating new things, and we have a very special place in our hearts for Lawrence, Kansas. We commissioned this new short story from Robin as a little love-letter and thank-you to the city and people that support BNB. Here’s to learning new things in 2023!