Later that evening, Shapiro performs the concerto at the acoustically challenged hall. When he had performed the piece seventeen years earlier, his performance was described as “ affirming .” Now, in this hall, though he does his best, “it had simply sat over them all—a great, indestructible, affirming block of suet.” Outside the hall after the concert, Penwad and his wife approach Aaron and point out notable dignitaries and other members of elite society, including the woman who is hosting a reception for Shapiro at her home that evening. Her haughty son stops to talk to Shapiro, and in the midst of their conversation, the journalist Beale approaches, sloppily eating an orange. He apologizes to Shapiro for getting drunk during their interview. The pompous youth with whom Shapiro has been talking makes a rude comment, indicating that Beale is not welcome at the reception. Shapiro is appalled, and Beale is livid, calling the boy a “Little putrid viper.” Joan, Penwad’s snobbish wife, beckons to Shapiro, saying it is time to leave for the reception. He joins her, but before he leaves, he wants to find Beale, feeling bad for him.
He searches and finally locates him, “crouched in the corner of a concrete trough that must have been intended as some sort of reflecting pool.” He is talking into his tape recorder, describing the elegant party to which he has not been invited. He speaks tenderly, almost as if talking to a lover, describing the Indian children of the servants playing a game near the fountain and reminiscing about the beauty of the country before the war. Finally, he puts the tape recorder behind his head like a pillow, and stretches out in the trough for a nap. The last thing he tells the recorder is, “everyone has something, some little thing, my darling, they’ve been waiting so long to tell you.” Beale is the English radio journalist who interviews Shapiro. Actually, he does very little interviewing and spends most of the time voicing his own opinions. Though at first Beale appears to be a minor character, the author uses him as a spokesperson for her views on the oppression of the native people and the beauty of the country. By having these weighty themes voiced by such an odd, buffoonish character, Eisenberg is able to avoid sounding pedantic. Psychologically, Beale appears to be a bit unstable. He rambles uncontrollably, drinks too much, and holds tender, clandestine conversations with his tape recorder. At the interview lunch with Shapiro, Beale wears a “tie that appeared to be made of rope,” a noose-like image that adds to his unhinged persona. Yet it is Beale who gives the story its title: he is so desperate for “someone to talk to,” he has invented his own listener. This basic human need, the need to be heard, is an important theme in the story.
Aaron Shapiro’s longtime girlfriend, Caroline, who leaves him in the opening scene, represents the kind of benign indifference often shown to the oppressed and suffering in this story. As Eisenberg describes her: “She despised no one. Those who were not nice, pleasant, happy simply ceased to exist.” Not surprisingly, as Aaron’s star began to fade and he became troubled and depressed, Caroline became uncomfortable. Rather than real empathy, she offered Aaron empty platitudes, such as “Things will work out,” and “Something will turn up.” Caroline comes from a privileged background, and her attitude matches that of the wealthy patrons of the arts who attend Shapiro’s concert. They live in grand mansions just moments away from the neighborhoods of native Indians who are starving and destitute. They ignore the plight of these people because they are not pleasant or happy.
García-Gutiérrez, a fictional Latin-American composer, wrote the concerto Shapiro performs at the concert. He is a “great tree of a man,” powerful and imposing. He is also apparently gay and interested in Shapiro. The fact that Shapiro premiered García-Gutiérrez’s concerto seventeen years earlier, when his star was still on the rise, drives home the vast difference between Shapiro’s career now and his career then.
The native peoples of this country, who have been oppressed, tortured, and massacred by the government, are a constant presence in the story. Ironically, the only person in the story who refers to them directly is Beale. When Shapiro notices the “fuming slums” while surveying the landscape with Penwad, Penwad blames the conditions on a recent earthquake then quickly turns the conversation back to the architecture of the Center for the Arts, which “survived intact.” Penwad’s wife, Joan, appears to be repulsed by the Indians, yet she is eager to show Shapiro the city’s Institute of Indigenous Textiles.
Richard Penwad’s snobbish wife, Joan, is more openly derisive towards the native Indians than her husband; when Richard mentions that they left Shapiro messages at the desk of his hotel, Joan excuses Shapiro by commenting, “Well . . . those at the desk.” Apparently unaware of her own hypocrisy, she is enthusiastic about the Institute of Indigenous Textiles and the “cross-fertilization” of native and modern motifs in the work of local architect Santiago Mendez.
Penwad is the pompous representative of the group sponsoring Shapiro’s concert. He carefully avoids any mention of the native Indians or what is happening in the country. He seems wary of Shapiro as well; he grimaces when Shapiro shakes his hand and afterward “glanced at his palm,” as if Shapiro might pass on some sort of contaminant.
There are hints that Penwad is a bit dominated by his wife; he voices her opinions of the center’s architecture, rather than his own, and when offering to show Shapiro the area, he says, “Joan has her own ideas, but you must say what interests .” He does not offer any suggestions of his own.
Aaron Shapiro, the story’s main character, is a concert pianist who once was considered a star on the rise; however, this potential was never realized. His career peaked in his twenties, and now he frets constantly about paying his bills, going over figures in his head: “Rent, plus utilities, plus insurance, minus lessons, plus food.” Though the reader is privy to Aaron’s thoughts and emotions, he says very little throughout the story. He is continually interrupted or overshadowed by the words of those around him—the verbose Beale, pompous Richard Penwad and his wife, even the haughty son of his hostess. He talks to Caroline, but to no avail; “If he spoke truthfully to her, she couldn’t hear him.” Even when he has an opportunity to speak, he is unable to seize it. When Beale stops talking for a rare moment during their interview, “Shapiro opened his mouth; a blob of sound came out.” Though to Penwad and others in the story the lines between classes are distinctly drawn, Shapiro has begun to realize how little separates him from the homeless people on the street, and it terrifies him.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Deborah Eisenberg, Published by Gale Group, 2006