Vanishing Point A Bookand Websiteby Ander Monson


Mix: Hidden Track. "The Exhibit Will Be So Marked"

Rarely do mysteries of any sort in life resolve satisfyingly. More rarely do they suspend satisfyingly and stay there, interestingly dangling. This one starts with an unmarked envelope.

For my 33rd birthday, I asked selected friends and family to make me a mix CD, hoping to get 33 mix CDs, one for each year of life. Somewhat predictably, there were a number of Jesus-Year-themed mixes. I also put out the call to friends to pass it to anyone they thought might be interested in sending a mix CD. I ended up getting 59. My project has been to listen actively to each of these mix CDs and to respond by annotating, riffing on, and responding to the selections, and send a note to the mixmaster with the results.

One mix CD arrived broken, so only the first few tracks were playable. Another mix, a pie-themed mix, arrived broken so only the tracklist was readable. Another was simply a tracklist of the worst songs on the mixer's iTunes without an actual CD to inflict said songs on me. One mix was composed of songs written and recorded when the artist in question was 33. One was songs released in 1933. One was all songs that the mixer was sure I had never heard before (he was correct). One was all songs by bands that the mixer and I had attended concerts of together (well played).

Several featured "Sweet Home Alabama." More than one included Bon Jovi. I am not sure why.

One mix CD was not a CD at all. It arrived in a regular business-sized envelope. It was a microcassette without a case. It too arrived broken. I filed it on my shelf with the others. It did not fit in the box with the others because the box was designed for CDs. Additionally it was broken. It was sent unpadded in a plain business envelope, with no return address. Addressed to me and postmarked in Nebraska City, Nebraska, the tape was the biggest enigma of the bunch. Did it have anything to do with the mix CD project? I did not know. It was broken and unplayable. As I listened to the other mix CDs and wrote about them, or in response to them, I thought about the broken tape.

A mysterious and unmarked tape arrives...straight out of a noir novel.

Was it a message? Was it from a stalker? A former lover? A family member?

No one claimed responsibility.

The actual magnetic tape was not broken, though its casing was. I bought some microcassettes in hopes of nerdily dismantling the broken casing and rethreading the old tape through an unbroken case. None of them turned out to be openable without wizardry. A couple months went by. I thought about other things, worked on other things. I thought about it. The hacker in me said I had to fix the tape myself. The reasonable person just said, eh, forget it. But I couldn't just forget it. Eventually I sent it out to a specialty audio restoration company that fixed the tape, burned it to a CD, and mailed it back.

It sat in its package on my desk. Should I listen to it, I wondered? Some things might persist better as mystery, unresolved. What songs would be on it? Whoever did this, I figured, knew something about me. My interests in technologies, particularly obsolete ones. Presumed that I would be interested enough to give it a listen (wouldn't you?). They didn't pack the tape well enough, though, to get it to me intact.

Was it worth $40 to get it fixed? It turns out the answer is yes, if only to know. It is always worth $40 to know. That's what makes me a crap poker player. I want to see everyone's cards, to see the flop, turn, river, to see how it turns out. And in poker you have to pay to find out. And I almost always pay to find out. Now you know. Now you will take me down.

So. I pop it in and give it a listen. It appears to be a recording from the judge's microphone in a murder trial set in Upper Michigan. There is no real identifying information beyond the names of the attorneys (Mr. Biegler and Mr. Dancer; there is also apparently a Mr. McCarthy who is mentioned) and the fact that the original judge on the case, a judge Maitland, was taken ill, and the new judge was from Lower Michigan. There are references to this being a sensational trial. Here is an excerpt from my transcription:

"I come here on assignment from Lower Michigan to sit in place of your own Judge Maitland, who is recovering from illness. Now I have no desire to upset the folkways or traditions of this community during murder trials or whatever they may be. I had not realized that there were so many among you who were such zealous students of homicide. In any case I must remind you that this is a court of law and not a football game or a prize fight."

Beyond this there's the judge's exhortations to the attorneys and the gallery to quiet down, to act more civilly, a couple rulings on objections and witness testimony, and a congratulations to the prosecutor on a particularly spectacular prosecution: "this is the first time in my legal career that I have seen a dead man successfully prosecuted for rape." The actual prosecution, the actual witness testimony, the actual objections--in short, any voice aside from the judge's--is not in evidence. There is also only short silences during the spaces where other people apparently responded, indicating that this is an edited version with the long silences removed.

I don't know what to make of it. It felt like there is a decent chance this is a recording from the courtroom of the murder trial on which I based some of my first book. Strange. Maybe I'm reading too much into it.

A damaged tape. An audio recording of a section of an Upper Michigan murder trial. The trial, the trail--they both appear to end here.

Then there is more:

"I suggest that both of you gentlemen invoke a little silence and let the witness answer. In fact I order you to."

"I'm going to take the answer."

"Take the answer."

"Gentlemen, gentlemen. There has been a question and an objection. And I must make a ruling, which I cannot do if you keep up this unholy wrangling. We are skating on thin ice, I realize. But in all conscience, I cannot rule if the question is objectionable. Counsel is not asking for the results of any polygraph test, but the opinion of the witness based upon certain knowledge possessed by him. Take the answer."

You want to give it a listen? [Here.]

It's pretty freaky, actually, when you just listen to it. Turn the lights out. Make sure no one is paying attention to you.

I listened to it over and over.

So I spent a couple hours trying to look up information on the murder trial of the man who killed my high school acquaintance. I find very little. It took place before the explosion of the web, so there's almost nothing online about it. I wonder whether the trial transcripts are public record, whether they're available for researchers to read them? The court transcriptionist surely did her (I've never seen a male transcriptionist, but they must exist) job for a reason. Surely these transcripts are open at least to lawyers who might want to prepare an appeal, or something. But that's different than public interest. I guess I really don't know. I resolve to find out more about this, the murder trial, the outcome. It's surprising that I don't know more considering my evident interest in the matter.

Then, maybe six hours later, after feeling entirely engaged in the mystery, I figured out what might be obvious to you, that the recording is in fact an edited version of the audio from the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder. It took me a while to get there. My wife suggested that there's no way anyone was recording the trial from the inside. True, I thought. And it's all quite articulate. And the more I thought of some of the lines, the more it sounded like a film, and that's the only one that makes any sense. I'd never seen the film, though the book on which it is based is set in Upper Michigan and is one of the more famous renderings of my peninsula. So I'm aware of it as part of my literature, something that has some relevance for me, that I should be responsible for.

The door slams closed, the mystery mostly--though not entirely--abated. At first. But then, I figure it's obvious why they'd send it to me, Upper Michigan and all, murder and all, but why only selections from the replacement judge character's comments?

And why unmarked? Why from Nebraska City, Nebraska? The city appears to be the opposite of a place. Nameless, faceless. Unfortunately the city exists--it would be better if the whole city, postmark and all, was fabricated, I think. It is the official home of the national Arbor Day celebration, oddly enough, and looks to be a pretty enough city. I wrack my brain, of course, to think of which of my friends might live in or have access to Nebraska City, Nebraska, or any city in Nebraska. None comes to mind. Few of my friends are obsessive enough to perpetrate this mythology.

Where I am from there are a lot of unexplained things: the Paulding Light, the Calumet Mining Hall Disaster, the incidence of paradoxical undressing, crimes unsolved, unresolved deaths. The Paulding Light itself was featured on the television program Unsolved Mysteries, and is the subject of at least one low-budget horror film titled after the light itself (which is not really recommended, unlike the light, which is great). In a remote place like my part of the world you learn to live with the fact that not everything is understandable.

Much is obscured by snow. Some obscured by history. A few things obscured by Robert Stack.


My obsession suggests that I have very few mysteries in my life, which is increasingly sad. Am I that settled, that fully comfortable with myself and the knowability of the world?

But beyond obsession there is just a wall of whiteness through which no light comes. You focus on what's in front of you. You keep focusing until it resolves, if it ever resolves.

I'm going to take the answer.





Hidden track on the hidden track: If you've found this page, good work. It's not linked from the index, which you may or may not have noticed. Maybe you thought it was an oversight. Maybe you're an obsessive reader, and you skipped the whole mechanism of the site, just typing in the url (well met, then!). That's how I mean for this to be used. But I want it to be useful or at least fun to play with for non-readers of the book, too, casual readers, or people who just googled in somehow. This particular piece is not for the casual reader.


And: if you're the mixer of this tape, I definitely would like to hear from you. Or would I? Maybe it's better to leave it there--an artifice, impenetrable, so I'll think about it for years. But then I might forget it. Probably best to tell me and claim your prize. I spent more fucking time on this particular tape than I did on any of the rest of the mixes. Well, you decide. You evidently know where to find me.