Winter 2024 • Vol. XLVI No. 1 |

On Waiting

At first, I waited to get older. I waited for summer, then I waited for summer to run out. I waited for Valentine’s Day, for lunch, for my legs to be long enough. On alternate weekends I held my sister’s hand at the state line’s Citgo station, where our mom’s SUV met our dad’s sedan. I put off wearing my new shoes. I waited all afternoon for a text, then I bit my nails in traffic. I checked every day for a special, unnameable email. I stared into the microwave, waiting to recognize myself. I smoked half a cigarette outside. I waited to do the thing I’d promised. I got in a car accident in Cleveland, then I waited to buy another car. I waited on hold with the used car lot, but instead of the light jazz I expected to hear, the line played a series of questions in a friendly man’s voice: Did you know that one highly productive toxic employee can cause more damage to a company’s bottom line than several less productive employees? Did you know that Rome has trouble expanding its subway system because they keep running into archaeological finds? I didn’t know. When the car dealer answered, I asked him to put me back on hold.

… …

Today if you call IKEA, you’ll meet ABBA’s sunny wall of sound. If you wait for Admiral Insurance to pick up, you’ll hear the plodding soundtrack to Game of Thrones. If you call HSBC, you’ll endure a version of elevator music that sounds like formaldehyde. But if you navigate the Cisco phone system my university’s IT department still runs on, you’ll get “Opus No. 1,” a remarkably beloved loop recorded in 1989 by sixteen-year-old Tim Carleton. As of 2021, Americans spent between ten and twenty minutes a week on hold, which means about forty-three days in their lifetime. Some of us have been waiting so long that doing it without music would feel wrong. But one day in 1962, regulars who had been waiting in silence on Alfred Levy’s factory line were surprised to hear a broadcast from the radio station next door playing through the phone. That day in Toronto a loose wire in Levy’s on-site phone system was brushing one of the building’s giant steel girders, acting as a receiver for the radio program, which played into the ears of callers, who found it a little easier to hang on. When Levy patented the accident in the ’60s, he called it “music on hold,” a strategy that began simplifying, for him, the old equation between money and time.

… …

My first paying job was at a shop called “Granny’s,” a windowless secondhand store where a Christmas mix CD played on a loop all year. My job there was to “tidy” — stacks of clothes and dishes after customers browsed the aisles — while Granny herself sat, fixed to an oxygen tank, at the front desk. She was vigilant about employee theft, and no one called her Margaret. Over the long shelves I could always spot the periwinkle cumulus of her hair. I wasn’t allowed to sit or linger, so I strolled the aisles up and down in a lawnmower pattern, deciding which secondhand goods I’d eventually buy with my paycheck — a sack of costume beads, a vintage bikini, or a vaguely satanic pendant. At Granny’s I learned that modern work happens wherever labor requires witness, and that the best training turns each worker’s surveillance inward. At Granny’s I watched myself steadily to practice the accounting I’d seen others perform. I began to feel suspicious of anyone who stayed still.

… …

The opposite of call waiting, the phrase “on hold” yokes the image of a person handling a phone that has a handle to the grip of attention they must maintain, listening in. The musical hold arrived after the radio hold as an upgrade that allowed marketing departments to choose a branded soundscape, avoiding the radio’s grating commercial breaks. Some corporations even offered a set of options for very long wait times: Press One for Jazz, Two for Soft Rock, or Three for the Comfort Tone. In the ’80s, that third option, a continuous, synthetic purr, skirted the cost of music rights while reassuring the caller that the line was live. Hold music eventually became an independently licensed genre, a set of instrumentals a company could buy to keep the money flowing, to ease the strain of corporate delay. 

… …

Today the radio is playing for thousands of empty rooms. In skyscrapers and sunny ranch homes, suburban prefabs and converted barns, a broadcast’s tethered plosives are soothing apartment dogs and animating houseplants. In Seattle, NPR is running all night in expensively understated lobbies, where it scares away unhoused people, targeting those who already suffer voices in their heads. At sunset, soggy talk radio blasts from Cleveland’s gas stations to deter bored teenagers. And for decades, the radio played all night in my grandparents’ semi-outdoor bedroom, a cold sleeping porch from 1906. Evenings in Iowa, the two of them would climb into their spartan double bed, switch off the single lamp, and turn up the volume on the BBC. In that sliver of the middle continent, delaying rest, like pleasure, was cultural. “You either eat well or sleep well” goes the adage some trace to the Old Testament. Given those terms, Midwesterners like to say that Illinois Catholics round down, going hungry, waiting it out, while Iowa Protestants round up, waiting for the end. The results of a 2012 study called Heaven Can Wait reported that Dutch people who were raised Protestant had a higher tolerance for daily delays than Italians who identified as Catholic, perhaps, the Italian researchers suggested, because of their sense of predestination, the Reformed idea that members of the Protestant flock were already saved, not earning salvation. For Protestants, waiting is a performance of moral fiber — holy text, not holy ritual; signified holy, not holy signifier. For my grandparents, the radio was a mode of endurance that preceeded radio. It was a method of waiting oriented toward the future, a way forward through the long, flat night.

… …

The ideal hold track is pleasantly innocuous but not absorbing, like a wad of gum rolled in the cheek. Carleton’s “Opus No.1,” which was recorded in his garage before playing on Cisco business lines for decades, is the IKEA couch of hold music, timeless and unassuming. It’s a drum machine, a synth, and a xylophone recorded on a four-track tape. You’ve heard it before, everywhere and nowhere, because it works. “Opus” is adored ironically by customers and appreciated universally by corporations, like my university, that wish to be considered corporeal. One of the qualities identified in the most enduring hold tracks is the listener’s sense that the song they hear is unfamiliar — that they’ve never heard it before — part of the magic of “Opus No. 1,” which has been playing for thirty years. Pleasant but not catchy, perpetually strange, “Opus” invites something like a light grip from callers who are fastened, vaguely reminded, waiting, at last, for nothing.

… …

My neighborhood’s Lyft driver says he waits in his car between rides to pick up another passenger, to be back on the clock without spending any unpaid time, in order to get back to his garden sooner. The security guard at my university practices vigilance, checking IDs, waiting for a moment she hopes will never come. After Granny’s I worked retail at a mall that was, at the time, the largest in the state, a windowless space designed by architects to foster something called the “Gruen effect,” a dreamlike sense that coaxes shoppers to underestimate the amount of time they’ve spent wandering inside. After the mall I passed four slow summers waiting tables and baking sandwich bread. I was a teenager, then I was an adult with a teenager’s job. Then I was a secretary at my college’s tutoring center, studying at my desk when students didn’t come in. On the weekend, I was a babysitter watching bad TV after the kids went to bed. Then I was pizza maker trying to keep the fire alive when the line died down. I learned that work is the delay you perform when you can’t afford the next steps, a method of moving toward an ascension that never quite lifts off on time.

… …

A body waiting is a body listening. Enduring, attuning, preparing to receive. But today’s reader rarely waits with twiddled thumbs, whistling, or scuffling her feet. She has a smartphone. She knows that those who wait idly sit like a tied goose, vulnerable to emotional hits, intrusive thinking, FOMO, JOMO, et cetera. Her phone ensures that she may only ever be interrupted. Someday the last generation to have been raised without the internet will die out completely, but I still remember the thrill of the dial tone and telephone holds with the cadence of a heart monitor, a kind of sonic ellipsis. The present moment, the “specious present,” is about three-quarters of a second long, most experts agree. All the rest is past and future. For the last two hundred years, people who research the sensation of time passing have been arguing about the idea of the “internal clock,” a mechanism, perhaps like the soul, that senses but isn’t tied to a single organ. A diffuse, invisible internal ticking, like Captain Hook’s crocodile. Many humans can guess the time without a watch and are proud when they do it precisely. Pavlov’s dogs received extensive conditioning, often hundreds of daily sessions, so many that they eventually began salivating not when the food bell rang but at the very end of its ringing, only as the ringing went quiet. The dogs had learned, rather than to simply associate sustenance with sound, the duration of that trigger, and the precise moment when food would arrive. But young children still have trouble judging how much time has passed on a road trip because they can’t yet separate a period of time from other measures, like the distance traveled, the number of songs played, or the sequence of rest areas. Are we there? Are we there yet? 

… …

The year I turned ten, my parents began listening to atmospheric music in separate cars. There were “Celtic” instrumentals, and wordless, cool jazz that traded radio hits for the sounds I associated with elevators and therapist offices, places of unease. This sonic shift was stark but unobtrusive, like every early sign of change is in retrospect. It was the early ’90s and my parents were the first in their families to divorce, which in our conservative Midwestern community was a tedious experience of shame made inescapable through their children’s constant witness. My parents’ new, ambient soundtracks were part of separate but simultaneous efforts to maintain continuity and class aspirations while waiting out financial strain and social upheaval. On the way to the grocery store or home from school, I was stunned by the soundscape, forgot all my questions. And before he eventually moved west, my father walked up to the front desk in a hotel in Sedona and bought the album playing through the airy lobby — pan flutes and acoustic guitars — and brought the CD home to play on loop, waiting it out in Illinois.

… …

The sound you think of when you think of “waiting” betrays your generational trauma. Waiting is a ticking clock or an awkward cricket, Jeopardy’s frantic-slow “thinking music” or the thrill of a dial-up tone, Ocarina of Time’s “Shop Theme” or Curtis Roach’s “Bored in the House.” But waiting is also a settler idea, a shopping experience. American waiting is the temporal legacy of removing “man” from “nature,” which allows him to sense time’s texture as separate from the progress of the individual, “the one.” My grandparents waited, thinking of the clock, on Meskwaki land. They still went to church on Christmas Eve, but the hymns couldn’t drown out the ringing their parents’ homesteading generation had left behind, a kind of knowing as irretrievable as the shaggy prairie they’d paved with feed corn. So they slept in an uninsulated room for all of Iowa’s winters, under electric blankets and stocking caps, for their hardened health, they said, but also because my grandma liked to see the stars through windows that didn’t fully close, to commune with something larger whenever she woke to an international news brief.

… …

In the ’90s, Music on Hold advertised data suggesting that shifting a customer’s perception of hold time was as effective as reducing the actual length of telephone holds. Several studies found that, generally, asking a person to simply focus their attention on the time that is passing will cause them to judge that time as lasting longer. It’s for this reason that psychologists agree “filled time” will always pass more quickly. The original theories of the internal clock associated a person’s ability to accurately estimate sections of time with a high IQ and “executive function.” But the most current research suggests that, instead, people with high body awareness, the ability to perceive subtle somatic changes, have the most accurate sense of time’s passage. In one study, subjects more aware of their own heart rate more accurately predicted the duration of an event down to the second. 

… …

My next job was in graduate school, a place I went to delay my return to “real work.” I was twenty-three and searching for the feeling that the workday had ended. Everyone was doing it. I got to go for free. In my doctoral program I taught first-year writing courses, the job no one else wanted and the first one I loved. Before summer work, I took home about a thousand dollars a month. Student fees were about six hundred dollars a year, and I paid no university tuition, but my contract forbade any other paid work, which meant that without loans I still couldn’t have afforded to enroll in one of the three-credit courses I taught. All of this was part of academic waiting, a process every generation has gone through, though it’s been generations since pay has been adjusted for inflation, cost of living, class size, or working hours. Academic waiting is a brand of professionalized delay that goes largely undiscussed because it doesn’t fit with familiar labor narratives, because many professors still wear complicated titles and old-fashioned ties, because professors on TV still own lake homes and sports cars, and because some who lived that version of the profession are still alive. Academic waiting relies on the ascetic, sometimes religious idea that withholding comfort leads to greater reward. And the academy is the perfect pickle jar for a system that ties the worker’s shame to its capital gains, a system that maintains the image of every worker as an honorable, upper-class, blazered academic in order to pay her less and less and less. Academic waiting boosts the honor of those whose quiet guilt is mounting, proof of a dream so big it pacifies everyone else waiting their turn.

… …

In a 2023 Super Bowl commercial a woman is lying on a couch in an unmistakably mild living room. She balances her smartphone on her forehead, screen up, waiting on hold as “Opus No. 1” plays over speakerphone. Actor Miles Teller grooves to the fridge in the open-plan kitchen and pulls two Bud Lights from beside a clutch of strawberries locked in Snapware. Behind the couch, he performs an inoffensive set of dance moves for his wife, whose face remains incredulously bored. The crack of the cans punctuates “Opus” ’s electronic drums and shakers, and suddenly the couple is “vibing” upright, no longer waiting but anticipating what’s next. Maybe things are getting sexy? The tagline of the commercial is “easy to drink” — a beer that seduces even the reclining woman, nondescript until the brew arrives. The commercial lands, in part, because of “Opus” ’s uncanny familiarity, but also because being on hold sounds very different in 2023. After 2016, corporate answering services began implementing prerecorded FAQs and service menus to save on customer service positions, and at the end of many lines, hold music was replaced by the purgatory unspooling from new interactive voice response systems. Monopolies like Mediacom, or Columbia Gas, a rural energy utility in Ohio, for example, whose customers have no choice in whom they buy gas from, no longer need customers to stay on the line to take their payments. Instead, their callers listen to grating voice messages directing them to expanded TV packages and the company website. Today, if you call a company like Mediacom, you’ll listen to verbal loops that list basic log-in information and persistently direct you to the automated chat function, verbally and sonically encouraging you to hang up, hang up, hang up.

… …

Perhaps the tradition of the academic wait has only ever been a problem of capital, not time. Researcher Sarah M. Hughes explains that the recommendation most regularly given to academics early in their career is to “wait for a permanent contract” before buying a house or having a child (or applying for a local grant, or changing a license plate, or unpacking too many books). What professional waiting looks like on campuses is hard to describe — the same chairs sitting for forty years outside heavy office doors, the same stuffy titles, classroom technologies, and parking fines, now occupied by a majority of workers on “casualized” contracts, who make fifty or sixty percent the income of full-time instructors while teaching twice the number of classes. Though most evidence of a “time starved” workplace is sublimated in the bodies of its workers, the source of that culture in the ongoing restructuring of universities has been documented on paper: the state-by-state pullback on educational funding, the undoing of shared governance in favor of leadership that “earns out,” the redefinition of student as consumer, and the emphasis on economic over cultural, scientific, or artistic production. Hughes writes that one problem of the academic wait is the assumption that the wait is temporary, “that we will arrive at a permanent job in the future, if we persist with the present.” In the meantime, the university’s annual budget is released, with plans to increase the number of short-term contracts. And the tradition of professionalized delay — waiting for salvation — is revealed to be a permanent feature. Today’s academic wait is, for most academics, a temporary hold the system knows is permanent.

… …

On the radio a local artist is explaining that most of us develop our musical taste at the age when we learn to drive. That was fourteen for me, in a farm state where learner’s permits are granted as early as child labor laws let you work. The car, even a borrowed one, is a personal soundscape unlike a bedroom. Physically, people outside a car can hear its muffled stereo, but spiritually, every car is a container in which music is played for an audience of one. “If you see a person crying inside a car,” writes poet Heather Cristle, “you know they are already held.” Which explains why, for me, waiting on hold in a car is intolerable. During the time I spent in graduate school, and later, applying for jobs, I had the distinct feeling that I was trying to make sensible conversation with a group of people seated in a car while I was jogging lightly alongside it, waiting for someone to let me in. I stared hard into the faces of my colleagues, who looked up in earnest, but only occasionally. What I know now is that the academic superstructure had strategically placed each of their faces in front of its own face. The system itself, complex and distant, spoke through some of their rusty mouths, while others of them drove the whole thing, like a car, Flintstone-style with their feet. The car itself was a mode of social control that manipulated a person’s perception of time. My teachers were the last of the answering systems, and most of them had never stopped waiting.

… …

Before hold music, corporations thought the only way to shorten wait times was to hire more people to answer the phone. For some people, five minutes on a treadmill is longer than five minutes reading in bed. For others, it’s the opposite. Today most physicists would agree that time is mostly perception. Time itself is no entity but a sense shaped by perception’s fish-eye lens. So the very best hold tracks do much more than stun or soothe — they shift a caller’s sense of how long they have been holding. Many researchers conducting studies of “time sense” base their methods on earlier research proving that people drink beer faster in a bar with fast music blasting and stay longer in a grocery store when quiet music plays, and that time passes more quickly for people who doodle while on a telephone hold than for those who eat or play games while holding. During “emergency time,” a temporal state some experience during a car crash or a fall from a mountain, survivors will report having lived the action in slow motion and having felt a sense of peace and clarity that allowed them to act quickly. So far, scientists have not been able to reproduce “emergency time” in the lab, though in 1961 one study did convince a participant to drive a trolley blindfolded.

… …

The accident is hard to remember. It happened the way they say it will, in the last fifteen minutes of a road trip, after three Midwestern states, on a raised curve of I-90 crossing Cleveland. The current research shows that even for adults, a sense of time is tied to space and motion, though there was also the element of sound. A slow series of metallic pops that in real time happened so fast they were nearly simultaneous. J and I had switched driving duties at a service plaza on the Ohio Turnpike, and it was night by the time we rounded the curve of the highway slung above the city, below and above two other roads. We were revived by the almost-there, going sixty-five between parabolic concrete barriers. Ahead were dinner, lovers, friends, familiar beds waiting. The curve spun and the dark highway opened and in the center lane there was a car. 

Ten years ago, a group of German researchers interested in embodiment conducted a study to determine whether the feeling of time is emotional. To the old “internal clock” theory, they added that the somatic cues humans rely on — heartbeats, temperature, hormonal shifts — to measure time passing are the very same signals that flare from emotions like fear and joy. If it’s the body that communicates time to the brain, they considered, then time is a feeling, not a tick.

J held the brake pedal down as cars passed us on either side, dividing the night like a school of fish. The shadow of the overpass stamped us and there was the cartoon sound of rubber burning, my fingers hidden in fists. The road telescoped and rang out as we stopped, stopped completely, just behind the smoking car. There was a full in-breath, I remember. My stepdad, a children’s surgeon, had always nagged me to take my feet off the dashboard: “That’s how you break both hips in a millisecond,” he’d said, batting my knee. His father and his brother had died in a crash when he was only eighteen. So I put my feet on the floor and thought the thought “We’re OK, we’re OK” before the first hit bucked the car forward, and I squeezed both eyes shut the way I once learned to do to wake myself from a dream.

In the experiment, the German psychologists showed a group of participants three film clips: one with “fear content,” one with “neutral content,” and one with “amusing content.” All subjects were instructed not to look away from the screen, but only half of the participants were asked to pay close attention to their bodily reactions during the films. Afterward, every person in the study was asked to estimate the length of each film clip in seconds. 

Inside the car, inside myself, I was doing a very slow, comic somersault. There was no sound, then a sound I’d never heard. I tried to turn and look at J. I was picturing the bumper of the car I still hadn’t paid off, feeling every surface of the bucket seat where it touched me. I felt like I had as a kid, holding up a broken lamp to show my mother, saying, “Look, it’s not so bad.” Like if I’d had the time, I might have rolled my eyes. Then the second hit torqued us sideways, and for a moment I thought I saw my side of the car bow out gently and go flat again, like the rolling back of a snake. The third hit turned us forward with a sound like a punctured can. When we came to a stop, J looked at me funny when I asked him to pull to the side of the road. “I don’t think I can,” he said. The car in front of us was gone completely.

The “fear content” video had lasted the longest, according to participants in the study, while the “amusing content” video had been the briefest. In overestimating the length of a horrifying scene from The Blair Witch Project, and underestimating the number of seconds in a clip from Ice Age, the subjects had collectively experienced brief “time dilations.” The smallest group, who had been asked to pay close attention to their bodily reactions, experienced the most acute distortions, reporting greater expansions and contractions of time in front of the same screen than the other groups. In one version of these findings, we learn that certain media shapes time itself.  

We walked away from that wreck. All six of us, from three cars. J thinks he had a minor concussion, and I had only a bruised shin from the long moment my legs were suspended as I set my feet back on the floor. We didn’t even go to the hospital. Later we’d learn that we’d come upon another crash — the first car had been forced into the barrier and bounced back into the center lane. Then its airbags filled, blocking the driver’s view of the highway, and they sat there, stuck in the roaring road. J had stopped inches away, but the last fish in the school didn’t have time to dodge us. That car was going forty when it crushed us against the first car, which spun backward, counterclockwise, striking J’s side door, which is how we ended up first in line when the cops arrived to strew sand on the road. The whole thing lasted maybe three seconds.

Afterward, the study’s participants were asked to rank the videos according to categories like pleasant versus unpleasant and aroused versus calm. The German psychologists asked them questions like “How many people were involved?” “Was a man or a woman the main actor?” “Which animals were depicted?” All of the videos shown were of the exact same length — forty seconds.

… …

People who haven’t seen much of the world consider the Midwest a physical kind of waiting — a flyover landscape, a road trip backdrop, a range of places people live before and after residing somewhere realer. As a hobby, in Iowa, my grandfather had studied and worked as a pilot of small transport planes, trained to fly in low, precise ovals over the tarmac whenever traffic control instructed planes to wait, circling, until there was room to land and dock, load or unload, then rise diagonally. He was a big-time small-town lawyer all the rest of his days. It didn’t occur to me until after he died that the weird radio playing all night in their bedroom was to drown out the dread that wakes some in middle age. You could hear it down the hall. Sometimes when I passed the sleeping porch at night, the radio had lost its signal and there was a wall of static on the other side of the door. When the radio worked, the constant broadcast probably meant that when my grandfather woke in the hour of judgment, he didn’t worry about losing time meant for the office, or the tarmac. What judgments did he await? The broadcast’s nondescript familiarity muffled a better-known Midwestern drip against time spent not working, against more honorable hours spent waiting for an honorable, predestined end.

… …

The elevator is a place of upward aspiration, like a temporary contract, like how playing NPR in the car gently signals a work ethic. But no one can rush an elevator. Inside, a vestibular assortment of humans have to stand in proximity to people they hardly or vaguely know, which stretches the awkward minute, giving them time to notice the cat hair on someone’s shoulder, or to learn whether the person at the front has the sense to ask, “What floor?” People are mostly silent in elevators because many of them are scared to fall, something it took me a long time to realize, but also because the time it takes an elevator to close, register, and rise is different for each machine, and people are bracing for the jolt. My suspicion is that of the people who wait longest on hold, many are digital immigrants or over sixty-five. Americans see our elders as people who are left waiting — for the rewards of retirement, to collect Medicare or grandchildren in that final waiting room. Because today most bills are paid by automatic withdrawal, or by navigating a touch-tone phone menu, a utility has almost no reason to employ people to answer their line. Each caller who makes it through the complex system or waits on hold long enough to reach a customer service agent costs the company more than a customer who gives up, even if the one who makes it through doesn’t succeed in resolving the billing error they called about.

… …

Initially, AT&T’s phone network was internally controlled by a range of audio tones, like the original Bell system. Each set of tones worked like a basic computer language, communicating status, organizing commands, flushing sonic information through the network, which was always listening back. The system’s tones played through circuitous connections, engaging or hanging up phone lines worldwide. Since the 1940s, groups of phone phreaks had been humming, whistling, and playing these tones back into a network navigated entirely by sound, one of the earliest examples of hacking. A significant percentage of the phreaking community was visually impaired, and some of the most famous, who went by names like Joybubbles and Teresi, were born blind. Joybubbles, who had perfect pitch, discovered that if he whistled an E7, he could stop any musical track or message that played for a caller waiting on hold. When he dutifully reported the vulnerability in the interface to the phone company, they cut off his family’s phone line, but Joybubbles went on phreaking, finding new ways to speak through the system.

… …

If scrolling on a social platform feels like a wait for something unnameable — for the news to break, for a palate cleanser after the news, for a meme to DM to my sister, for the right animal video to send me finally to bed — it’s because a sense of waiting online is integral to retaining our attention there. The disenchanted hustle that shaped my millennial adulthood means that waiting has become funny to subsequent generations, who viscerally equate their own attention with commodity. As the hold music died, waiting became a kind of “vintage” experience for generations raised on memes of angry cats yelling “REPRESENTATIVE!” in all caps into the phone. “Waiting for what?” Gen Z seems to ask, vibing. Telephone holds, they’ve noticed, are existential surplus. Today’s hold music can’t compete with social platforms; the phone lines don’t need us anymore. TikTok influencers recently began performing this casual nostalgia via multichannel dance videos set to “Opus No. 1.” In the genre called “On hold like . . .”  TikTokers record themselves jiving lightly to the track in four layered shots, bored in the face but right on the beat. The videos end just after the “drop,” when “Opus” ’s xylophone lands and the fourth dancer gives a sincere performance of post-irony, going subtly wild. They know something I don’t yet, about time spent not waiting, about an attention that swims slowly across the scaffold, fist-bumping, multitasking, and waiting, at last, for nothing.

… …

In the past twenty years I’ve had my tarot cards fanned, my birth chart read, and my runes tossed on a checkered tablecloth, but the only time I have prayed was inside my stepdad’s car in the cool family garage. It was four days after he’d died, the day before my birthday, and I was barefoot in pajama shorts. I was a grad student on summer break, hiding from my mother in a part of the house that felt unlike the house, seven hundred miles from my university and somehow still in the Midwest. Tensions were high among a family we’d combined with several plus signs in the wake of three divorces. Death had revealed what we’d felt but never said — that my stepdad had been the one to bind us legally and financially, Brady Bunch–style, and that in his absence we could all return to disorder.

… …

All day, my Gen Z writing students read bits of text on screen, navigating multicolumn threads, tapping term papers into their phones, the way I’m tapping the end of this essay. But all of them, readers, are uncomfortable with texts that make them wait. Sometimes the wait arrives explicitly in the sections of white space within a fragmented story, or an oddly vast enjambment in a poem. My students don’t trust the visual hold for the reasons they don’t trust the audio version: because they don’t trust their own attention, because they already sense that the supersystems they know manipulate their perception of time to shape their behavior. Often, they mistake a textual wait for an extension of academic waiting — the promise of a reward that never comes. Visual holds threaten to lose them, and in silence they feel most lost. But partway through a semester, some realize that gaps in text also invite a gentle tolerance for time without input, time between inputs, a silence in which the mind of the reader can go on writing the text.

… …

This weekend when my producer friend Anita edits the draft of a podcast in a cold sound studio, she’ll digitally score the recording by identifying what producers call “posts,” points where she’ll eventually add music to punctuate transitions in a long monologue or a semirehearsed conversation about ethical porn. In the recorded seconds after her host pronounces a depressing statistic or drops a rhetorical question, Anita will insert a musical transition to leave a slightly longer pause in the episode. It’s a kind of sonic nod she uses to shape a sliver of the future, inviting the listener to process information from the podcast, live, at a later time. The result is a kind of musical hold that lands the audience back in their bodies to absorb information — a required, active wait. Behind the waiting is another brand of radio music, a kind of instrumental “thinking track” that ticks gently away at a listener’s attention, assuring them that the subtext they sense is intended by the program, that the guiding voice will come back.

… …

That summer I sat in my stepdad’s driver’s seat, which smelled like his smoke and spearmint, closed my eyes, and asked him, searingly, with all I had, for help. The blue car had been his in a way that things at home never were once he remarried and took in two more kids. When I borrowed it in high school to drive places I wasn’t allowed, I’d listen to the mix he had on the iPod mini that dangled on a cord from the glove compartment. Protest songs and murder ballads. He’d lived every day, in scrubs, for another version of himself, imagining his retirement aloud for us until he died, at sixty-five. I waited there in silence for some sort of sign, searching the car for a surviving pack of Winstons, a charging cord, something of him left to keep. I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. My mother opened the door to the house, blindingly, and I went inside.

Photo of Sarah Minor

Sarah Minor is the author of Slim Confessions: The Universe as a Spider or Spit (Noemi Press, 2021) and Bright Archive (Rescue Press, 2020). She teaches at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program.

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