The Skins by Tyler Barton
Reading Tyler Barton’s flash fiction, “The Skins,” is akin to watching a cooking competition: it’s all about a perfect sound that we obviously can’t hear. And it’s as delightful and tense as the GBBO or Chopped finals. The voice is distinct and rhythmic. The premise and plot are complex and original. The pace is precise and the tone compliments the content.
At the line level, Barton does not disappoint. You will laugh, audibly: “One by one, my team began to flee, talking of union contracts, families, the sour taste leftover from the finger-snap debacle. ‘It’s getting dark,’ they said. ‘Outside, too.'” Please be sure to pair your reading of the story with Barton’s author’s note, a discussion of mystery and wonderment, of permitting the author a bit of the unknown. Join Ziegler and the producer in the quest for the perfect clap. —CRAFT
The producer wanted wet hands. Sweaty and tense to where the sound really snapped. So my team detained the clappers in an overwarm anteroom beside the recording booth. Made them wait. Clammy, anxious, beating on the soundproof door: We’re still in here! Eventually they were released, palms moist, only to find their mark at the mic and fail her. Each time, the producer sighed. The perfect clap was somewhere far off but—she assured my team and I—reachable.
She wanted trim nails. Short fingers. “I need compact percussion.” At noon she called the bassist’s handclap languorous. “I need hands that don’t take all day to come together.” We brought in children, but they had no strength. We brought in brawny wrestlers, varsity but rhythmless—and even though I could’ve made it match the beat in post, the producer wanted someone with an intuition she could sense. A soul she could hear on tape.
She wanted my team to stop bickering. A chat about the proper pop-filter had spiraled into a dispute over whether, in a finger snap, the sound comes from the friction between thumb and middle finger, or rather in the finger striking the palm. Battle lines were drawn, mapping neatly onto two worldviews, neither of which the producer was interested in exploring. An intern was let go.
“What if you just do the clap yourself?” I asked her, trying to distract from the episode. “We’d probably have it in like one take.” But this song was a part of her Selfless series, records with pages and pages of credits. One is only built from a pile of others, read the pull quote from her Vibe interview, even though the album art was always, front and back, full-bleed headshots of the producer’s stoic pout.
“No, Zeigler.” She loved to put a touch of Dutch on the pronunciation of my name, even though I had never stepped foot in Europe. She had her own engineer in every country, refused to fly me out for tour. “It is not my role to clap,” she said, pressing the delete key to erase an entire track.
So I brought in music students who cupped their hands in exotic ways. It didn’t take. We got creative, idiotic—we had a policeman fire a gun. Blanks, but still. “It sounds forced,” she said. One by one, my team began to flee, talking of union contracts, families, the sour taste leftover from the finger-snap debacle. “It’s getting dark,” they said. “Outside, too.”
Hours meant nothing. What were hours? The coming lump sum would float my team through another summer. The payday was out there somewhere, invisible but within grasp. Marcus and I had decided not to adopt until I was established, until my name was a stock you could trade.
“You’re getting all their information, right?” she asked from inside her stress-relieving VR headset. “The failures, I mean. I need each one credited.” Yes, I assured her, and then made more calls. Calls. Calls until my phone died. I wandered down the street, past the café, past the poke bowl place, past the new lofts, and into the barber school. They didn’t seem to understand my request, but I left an address. One man set down his scissors and shook my hand.
The producer ate dinner—a family-size bag of peanut M&Ms—right there at the soundboard. She’d suck the candy down to its furrowed core, pinch the nut from her tongue, and stack each one beside the mixer. It was times like these that I’d try to break a clipboard with my hands. I’m still working on it. Perfection, to me, is a pile of trying. I tried to explain this to her, how the pile eventually grows high enough to be enough. “You know, Ziegler,” she said, “I’m not paying you for an opinion.” And before I could sulk away to send some emails, she softened, turned to me, and confessed that perfection was immortal. “Omnipotent, yet quotidian,” she said. “Like finding a dropped dollar.”
“More like a million of them, all at once.”
Our only agreement was that the handclap is the supreme snare. No drum, acoustic or digital, sounds immaculate as that: two hands brought together. To this day, I get a little kick when someone calls a set of drums the skins.
When the barbers arrived, the producer was sugar-crashed on the couch, facedown, so I led the session—instructing them through the microphone. “Just clap,” I said, forgetting to hit record, and the four men began to applaud. My team was gone, so I cracked up all alone. My laughter woke the producer, who stood and leaned over the board, watching as they kept clapping.
“Who are these men?”
“Barbers,” I said.
She touched the red button to capture their ovation. “They work with their hands,” she said, raising her arms above her head—a victory, a stretch.
The song, you’ll notice, is totally snareless. No claps, no snaps. No pillars prop up its structure. It marks the start of her Formless phase. You can hear a thread throughout, soft in the background—applause like rain. If you scroll through the credits, you’ll find me buried there, beneath a sea of names.
TYLER BARTON is a cofounder of Fear No Lit, the organization responsible for the Submerging Writer Fellowship. His chapbook of flash fiction, The Quiet Part Loud (2019), won the Turnbuckle Chapbook contest from Split Lip Press. Find his stories in Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Subtropics, and forthcoming in The Iowa Review. Find him at @goftyler or tsbarton.com.