Speculation, N

by Shayla Lawz

Produced by Bassel

The physical component for this piece is a stand-alone booklet. The audio is played at the same time as the reader moves through the booklet; sometimes the text is spoken and sometimes it is written.

Press play to listen to the audio as you read along.

Instructions for Viewing: You will encounter a variety of ways to experience this piece: some sections will require your reading, some will require your listening, and all will require your attention.

[Narrator] Please turn your sound on. Where there is text, please read. When you hear this bell [bell], please turn the page. Okay, here’s your first bell [bell]. You should now see a television. Do you see a television?

Page One

[A crude graphic of a television takes up the full page. On the screen are the words “Is the TV on?”]

[The sound of shuffling and clanking of plugs and cords. Narrator speaks.] Give me one second. I think this plug will do the trick. Let me just… [Scrambling; cords and plugged in. A staticky television starts, ambient noise of channels tuning in and out.]

There! It’s playing.

Can you see it?

Is it playing for you?

[A high pitched, staticky whine, quickly approaching the listening.]


Page Two

[Soft static, crackle. The occasional sound of something getting caught and then smoothing out again. Something’s not working like it’s supposed to. The sounds continue in the background as we experience the text on the printed page.

The words “Have you seen the news did you hear have you seen…” are wallpapered around the border, and inside is a block of text that reads:

There is a dream in which I turn off the news, yet it follows me. Through family, lovers, people on the street. By way of the telephone, the radio, even the blank screen on the television. In a song, in a photograph, in the mirror—that’s where I see it the most, in the image staring right back at me. It is then, looking into the glass at my own reflection, that I begin to see myself everywhere. In store windows, in displays at the mall, in car mirrors. I bend down, when passing a vehicle on the street, just to take a look—a kind of checking in—as if to say, Yes that is me walking by, I am not dead yet. Another black man is killed by the police. I turn off the TV. I say, I am not dead yet. Sandra is found in her cell. I log off the internet. I say, I am not dead yet. A child is shot right in front of my house. I go to sleep shortly after the paramedics arrive, cushion my head into the soft pillow, and wake in a pool of my own water. I say, I am not dead yet. But it’s something like blood. And I can still hear the sound. He’s dead! He’s dead. They were all dead. But I was not dead yet. People were dying. I was alive.]


Page Three

[On the next page, the same border exists, a wall of “Have you seen the news did you hear have you seen…” This time, though, there’s no text inside it. Just blank space.]

[Narrator] Are you watching this? They say we can’t keep looking at this, but what happens if I look away. I mean, it’s playing for you too, right? See? See—look at that! Do you see that? I can’t look at that.


Page Four

[Soft static continues, layers of crickets and other insects come in slowly. An occasional mechanical orb, wobbly and quick, moves across the soundscape. This soundscape continues as we read the next page.]

[On the left side of the spread, the words “NEWS TODAY” are printed in large letters. On the right is a block of text that reads:

We either die or disappear. I have often dreamed myself alive and disappeared by the very next morning. It happens just like this: one moment I am here, looking at myself in the mirror, and the next I am just a body. Can you believe it? Even when we are dead, we are made to look alive. Dressed in fine fabric, powdered with makeup, touched, cared for, made beautiful—all this just to vanish once again, a dirt floor beneath the trees, hidden from everyone we’ve ever loved.

I did not go to the funeral. I stayed by the water. Our family has a history with death, or perhaps dying. I cannot say I know the difference. Perhaps it is proximity. Perhaps the disappearances all make sense. Perhaps they do not come out of the sky like the jet plane swirling through a cloud, but instead into the body like a bullet. There was the bullet that hit the child and then there was the sharp, cool burning, come after.]


Page Five

[The television graphic is back, this time with the text “Was that you on the news?”]

[Narrator] Was that you on the news?

[Static stutters and then smooths out again.]


Page Six

[This time the border is wallpapered with the words. “It was something like I was something like blood...” The text in the middle reads:

The news will tell you what to believe, but recognition is the true means of survival. That feeling we get each time we see someone who is ours leave this world. He was ours. She was ours. They were ours. The image printed on the front page, that black scream they gave them. These are not mine to keep, but they were ours. And we now imagine their bodies somewhere else, somewhere that is not of this earth. And perhaps you want to leave with them. I wouldn’t tell you that you were wrong. Perhaps you feel it in your abdomen, or in your head burrowed in the ground, or in your hands raised up in fury. I remember the first time, how the pain settled deep down in my stomach and made a home. I could not move it. I could not feel a thing but the weight. The water. First, the sharpness of the mind hides your body, reduces skin to ornament. But then your body washes up like animal out of river. Teeth drawn, searching for the thing that drew blood. They were ours. What is yours? What is yours? What is yours? Tell me.]

[After some time, an ominous, high-pitched tone sneaks in from far off, gradually growing louder until it pushes to the foreground, taking up all the space. Unsettling, like a singing bowl that’s out of tune.]

[A heavy beat starts to set in.]


Page Seven

[The words “Technical Difficulties” are printed across the top of the page. Below that is what looks like a graphic representation of a volume dial. Instead of numbers or channels, the text arrayed like sunbeams around it is:

Right there!

Was that—

Is it playing?

Please adjust the volume

Is the sound on?

Did you see THAT?

Can everyone see the TV?

Is everything okay?]

[As the words move around the dial, they break down, letters missing, gaps in the words.]

[Narrator speaks in a panicked, strong manner, the words rising in intensity as the beat continues. We feel ourselves gripping, holding our breaths:

Right there! Right there.

Is that—was that—

Is it playing?

Is it playing—right there!

Is the sound—

Please adjust the volume.

Right there!

Is the sound—

Please adjust the volume

Can everyone see the TV?

Can you hear it?

Right there!]

[The words layer more and more, cutting each other off, too much to fit in one breath.]

[All the sound comes to a crescendo, and with the panicked final words of “RIGHT THERE!” everything stops.]

[Silence for a moment and then a snowy static returns.]


Page Eight

[Now, a crude graphic of an old school car radio.]

[Narrator] Let’s try the radio now. You hear it, right? And I hear it too much.

Oh. Ohhh.

You think that’s the problem? Well—let’s see. [The television tuning gets loud for an instant and then stops all together.]

[The narrator’s voice feels closer than ever; calm.] Hey. Yeah, you. Are you there?


Page Nine

[Watery music starts, notes like droplets, undulating slowly and suspensefully. It continues as we read the text on the page.]

The first time I knew death was as a child. My aunt was pregnant and due to give birth. My mother had been taking care of her, getting prepared for months; she was her baby sister. They were close, but during this process I noticed that a different kind of bond had grown between them. We often get closest to those we love in these moments—one life coming into the next, a new body to care for. When I got out of school, they would come pick me up and the three of us would drive around running errands, telling jokes, singing to songs on the radio.

On the afternoon that my aunt went in for labor, it was my father who picked me up from school. When I got into the car, he was silent. I turned on the radio, flicked through various stations, but after driving for a few blocks he turned it off. He said, how was your day? I said, good. He said, did you learn anything? I said, yes. He said, your aunt. I said, my aunt? He said, she had the baby. I said, oh that’s great! Are we going to see her? He said, listen. He said, there’s bad news.

[At this point in the text, the narrator returns to the audio, reading the lines that follow, with silence in place of the blank spaces.] He said, your        she didn’t        I said,        He said, yes. I said,       ? He said, the baby        I said, that’s great       ! I said, and my       ? He said, we’re driving        I said,        where? He said,        the        I said, and my       ? He said, no—she’s        I said,       ? What do you mean,       ? Where did she       ? He said, the baby        the baby is a boy.

[The narration stops here. The soft begins to fade softly.]

When we got to the hospital, he let me out of the car. I walked through the sliding doors and up to the front desk alone. a voice said, who are you here to see? I gave my aunt’s name. And then a body rode the elevator with me to the third floor. All I can remember is that there was no sound. Before the doors opened the body said, the baby. I said, the baby? The body said, he’s so beautiful, he’s so, so beautiful. I said, he is?

She said, yes.

I said, that’s great news.


Page Ten

[The crude graphic of an old school car radio, again.]

[Narrator] Can someone please turn the station. Can you? You can still hear me… right?


Page Eleven

[We catch a moment or two of smooth horn and then return to soft static, as if we’ve tuned the station in and out again.]

[Layered over a large-type “News Today” is the following text. The narrator reads along, in a voice that sounds far off, as if piped in through a telephone:

The baby boy is twelve now. My mother called me the other day to tell me about how much he misses me. How much he cries every time I leave and how he wants to know when I’ll be coming back. She said, Something about you must remind him of his mother. And I said, Something about me? How could something about me remind him of her? He’s never even met her. She’s… she’s dead. And I’m—] [Plastic on plastic: a telephone handset returns to the cradle.]


Page Twelve

[Various high pitched, wobbly tones, as if a microphone is picking up reverb, wash across the soundscape.]

[Read by the narrator, as well as printed on the page] Have you heard what they’ve been saying about you?

[Printed on the page, as if in response.] No, I did not hear.

[Narrator, and also printed] Where were you, when you heard the news?

[Narrator, and also printed. The audio is suddenly staticky, cutting in and out.] I was right here and then I… wasn’t I right here? and then I wasn’t I right here I was right wasn’t I… right here… wasn’t I?

[Narrator] Wasn’t I? Right… here?


Page Thirteen

[Soft static returns.]

[The words “Have you seen the news, did you hear the sound” are printed large on the page, but a black box layered over it guts most of the text, leaving only parts of the words visible.]


Page Fourteen

[Text:i’ve been seeing my body around]


Page Fifteen

[Text:in the stairwell, in the house, and even at times in the mirror. in the news, at times. in the street. on the television screen, in the       ;        behind the and always .

face to face with the barrel of a       , for seconds. and then for a time, in the bed. and all at once in the mattress]


Page Sixteen

[Text:as the boy, as the girl, and even at times as the mother. as the sun, at times. as the dirt. in the soil, in the       ;        on the front of the but always remembered.

face to face with the light        of the       , for seconds. and then for a time, as the body. and all at once,        out

“i saw her yesterday and she looked nothing like herself,” said the image]


Page Seventeen

[The old school car radio returns, plain as ever.]

[A high-pitched beeping like it’s trying to communicate a message.]

[Narrator] Is the radio back on?


Page Eighteen

[Ethereal music with the faintest hint of harp or other angelic sounds swells up from underground, quiet at first and then building body, taking up space. Louder and fuller than anything that has come before it.]

[On the left side are the large words “NEWS TODAY.” On the right, the text:

Did she die yet? said a woman rushing out of the elevator and into the crowded waiting room. I looked up from the magazine I had been reading, as if I were being directly addressed. She had her arms raised in the air, just hanging there, as if someone would answer her question any second. And I mean, she was looking right at me. In fact, she was the kind of woman that seemed to be looking at everyone. And what a terrible thing to say to a room full of people waiting on good news. Or fate. Or God. I felt especially accused, and of what, I can’t tell you. Perhaps of living. Perhaps of livingdying. I wanted to jump up from my chair and scream, Of course I have not died yet! Why would you say such a thing? I am very much alive! Look at me! But I did not move. Maybe it was that I knew it wasn’t true—the living.

I scanned the room for assurance that she had been talking to someone else. But no one had even bothered to look her way. Then the woman smiled at me and motioned toward the TV screen. Was this the beginning or the end? I don’t remember, she said. And that’s when I looked up and realized she had been talking about the soap opera that had been on this entire time. I let out a sigh of relief. I wasn’t dying, yes, of course! It was the young woman in the scene, who was ill or had been in some kind of accident, lying in a hospital bed as a machine went on with its sounds. Yes, of course, not me.

[Around here a strong tone, like a bow pulled across a deep bass string, joins in, giving the music a sense of grounding, a sense that things are finding their shape.]

There were flowers, photographs, a group of loving people exiting a room. Alma? Alma Rivera? a man called out from the front, and then the woman, Alma, disappeared. I stared at the scene on the television, watched each person walk out of the hospital room one by one. I imagined them as family, friends, acquaintances. Perhaps even strangers. Is that what death looks like? A group of people leaving a room. Or is it the other way around? One person staying behind.

There was a woman, who must have been the dying woman’s lover, who refused to leave. Even when the machine stopped with all its sounds and receded to one soft hum, both their bodies lay there softly against the bed. Did they both leave? Or perhaps this is how they both stay. Is that what love looks like? Suddenly there was someone calling my name, or perhaps something, loudly, as if it had been hours. As if it had been years. I’m right here! I said. Right here. As I was walking to the office, I peeked into the other rooms to give Alma the news. Alma? Alma? All three rooms were occupied, yet none of them by an Alma Rivera. As I sat down on the examination table, I wondered, Had there ever been an Alma here? Had I ever been here before? Was this the beginning or the end? I don’t remember.]


Page Nineteen

[The old school car radio returns again. We get the sense maybe for the last time.]

[The music fades into Saba’s “Heaven All Around Me.” There’s deep relief in at last hearing singing, melody, a song.]


Page Twenty

[At the top of the page are the words “What could we see from the moon?” Below that is text that the narrator returns and reads aloud, Saba still playing underneath it all:

“Every nigga is a star,” sings Boris Gardiner, and I know what the song says to be true. Sometimes I am a rogue astronomer, maker of my own science. It is our history to believe in all the ways that we can be free. A star. A star! Do you wanna be a star? says the advertisement on the TV screen that in the next moment says, dead. She is dead. Just like that. And the news will say she looked just like you, same material, same celestial body. I watch electronic matter outlive its subject and chart the glow as a sign of life. There is evidence that we are alive somewhere else. In some other universe, some future memory. But I know we are all right here, too. I understand living and dying as fact but the body that refuses death as a star. How could I believe in anything else but my immortality? [The music fades out. We’re left only with the static.] Who else would I be? What could we see from the moon?]

Shayla Lawz is a writer and interdisciplinary artist from Jersey City, New Jersey, working at the intersection of text, sound, and performance. She has received fellowships from Jack Jones Literary Arts, Cave Canem, the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, and the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University, Camden. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she teaches in the Humanities and Media Studies Department at Pratt Institute. Her debut poetry collection, speculation, n., was chosen by Ilya Kaminsky for the Autumn House Poetry Prize and will be published fall 2021.

Bassel is a sound artist and electronic music composer based in Brooklyn.