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I’ve always said I’ll never write a blog because I lack the requisite self-involvement, which is to say that I don’t consider my merest thoughts to be worth the world’s attention. Really, we don’t come up every day with things worth sharing. But I’ve got a number of bits and pieces piling up on my computer that I find worthwhile, which for one reason or another I can’t seem to sell to anybody. Mainly, then, this blog is a repository of my orphans. Its title originated in my Boston Symphony note on Charles Ives’s Ragtime Dances. It’s come to represent my own odd bits, my thoughts and fantasies and feuilletons on assorted subjects.

A suggestion: try reading selections from the bottom up, because that’s the way they were posted.

This is a piece I wrote in the middle of the 80s and thought, sadly, I’d lost. But it turned up and I’m posting it here. Another of my orphans.

JAN SWAFFORD–
IN MEMORIAM: GANDY (ca. 1984)

I first set eyes on Gandy Brodie on a blustery day in November, as I was driving to my schoolteaching job in Vermont. There he was, hanging his thumb beside the road at West Townsend. I pulled over automatically – hitching was the only form of public transportation in that area–, then regretted it when I saw the shabby figure galloping toward me. “O Christ, a bum,” I groaned. As he neared the car I revise that estimate: surely this is another resident of the Brattleboro Retreat, out in a day pass, seeing the sights. As he opened the door and slid in I confirmed a mad light in those wide eyes.

As with all my hitchhikers there ensued a period of confusion, because my VW Beetle came equipped with detectors that detected the backside of anyone sitting in the car, and a buzzer that wailed until that seatbelt was fastened, and finding the seatbelt was not easy. Still, this stranger went beyond the usual bounds of incomprehension, totally unable to grasp my instructions, smiling in a really unsettling way at my groping around his person, looking game and crazy/friendly, until I had for the only time in my experience to get out of the car, go around, open the door and hand his belt to him. Then he couldn’t figure out how to fasten it.

Finally he was squared away, the banshee buzzer ceased, and off we set. Glancing over, I saw him smiling and staring fixedly ahead (retreat patient, all right) and holding a new artist’s brush tight in his fist. Trying with a certain sense of despair to break the ice, I asked, “So, you have a brush there. Are you an artist?”

“I’m a famous painter,” he said.

Like nearly everything Gandy said, that statement was susceptible of interpretation, had layers of versions of truth mixed in with ironies and outright fantasies. All this, of course, was just like his paintings, those layers and layers of speculations and revisions, all of it seemingly talked into place with his never-ending, fantastic, exhausting rap.

Gandy was and is famous and not famous. His paintings are in the collections of the Metropolitan Musician of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, among others, and he had significant admirers. One of the latter was critic Meyer Schapiro, who wrote of him, “Gandy Brodie stands out by his stubbornly personal poetic art… the arrested metaphors of insecure and frustrated existence…the purity and perfection of emerging life.” He had an extensive show in New York about fifteen years ago. For what it’s worth, I’m a middling dilettante of painting and I don’t know anyone of Gandy’s generation whose work I appreciate more. But as for famous: for a while I queried a number of painters and found no one who’d heard of Gandy Brodie. As the young aspiring composer I was when I met him, I hadn’t realized yet that there’s a substantial difference between good and famous.

But that elusive fame was important to Gandy, in the singular admixture of the sublime and pragmatic and incomprehensible that made up the color of his consciousness. He talked often about getting ahead, played the hustler, dropped more than a few names. Once when I was visiting his house he shoved before my eyes one of the stranger photos I ever saw. It was from his days as a hot young New York painter, I suppose, a picture from an old Vogue, maybe by Avedon, from sometime in the 50s. Posing in the photographer’s studio was a smashingly dressed Vogueish model of the era; beside her Miles Davis, trumpet in hand; and kneeling at their feet Gandy, holding one of his paintings and looking smug. That night he told me he had lived for some time with Billie Holiday, who was his greatest influence. I never found out to what degree that was true, but I began listening to Billie then and still do.

I get ahead of myself. The day we met, Gandy and I made our way down the road from West Townsend and sounded one another out. I told him I was a composer and at present was making my living teaching music at the high school in Townsend. “Then you teach my son Shane,” Gandy said, and so I did – my moony guitar-playing Grateful Dead head, Shane. Sure, of course. Gandy became a little interested in me: a fellow artist, a mentor for his son. He was to maintain that interest, despite my comparatively fledging creative career and my shy incapacity to cope with him. The thing was, you see, Gandy took everything seriously, which was one of the most nearly intolerable things about him. So if he was going to be interested in me he was going to lavish the blinding glare of that seriousness on whatever encounters we had. Always, I shrank from it. I’d never met anybody larger than life. I myself was just life-size.

I dropped Gandy off in Townsend and he aimed his thumb toward Newfane, where his studio was. Later that day I told Shane I’d met his father. “Pretty weird, huh?”, Shane said.

As best I can remember, I saw Gandy on six or seven further occasions over the next two years, the longest of them maybe two hours. But I felt then and still feel that he is as much a part of my experience as people I’ve known for years. It had to do with the density of our encounters. A meeting with Gandy was never a quick greeting or a simple get-together. It was an Event floating on the unceasing stream of his talk, which was an infinite dissertation on painting and the universe and one’s relation to them. I quickly discovered that it was impossible to banter with Gandy; every joke, every conventional ploy of conversation was absorbed into the labyrinthine processes of his mind and before my ears transformed into something rich, strange, and bewildering (bewildering, at least, to a young composer wrestling with the quotidian demands of art, a job, a new wife, and money). I have no samples of Gandy’s words to offer because I rarely could remember a thing he said. I only remember a musing voice, a rambling and weary rhythm, webs of ideas trailing off into obscurity.

Once he came to my place for a visit and I played scratchy tapes of two or three early pieces of mine, the only things that had been performed by then. He proclaimed them magnificent, which they were not, but I hoped his instinct about my artistic promise was at least a prophecy from what might be a bona fide prophet. Visiting his house I met his wife Jocelyn, herself a painter. “Jocelyn could’ve married Picasso, but married me instead,” Gandy told me later. As best I can figure, what created that notion was that Jocelyn, as a young and beautiful painter, had lived in Paris at the same time Picasso did.

Driving through Newfane on sunny days in the spring and summer I would pass Gandy painting in the yard outside his studio. I wish I’d stopped, but never did. I was too shy, he was busy (though I found that having a visitor never seemed to slow him down), and on sunny days in spring and summer I lacked the nerve to deal with him. Even in passing, though, I could see the somber and sprawling tapestry of his colors, him dancing before the canvas going at it with strokes sweeping or gentle.

I visited his studio only once. It was a barn piled with decades of paintings, most of them still in progress. On an old easel dripping with stalactites of paint sat a canvas. Like all his work it was representational, but done in a free and hyperexpressive style reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism. In the middle of the canvas was a figure, which in spite of the morass of paint one could somehow recognize as Gandy, holding his pallet–a self-portrait of the painter in late middle age. It was the background that was astonishing: it’d been redone so many times that it stood out nearly two inches from the canvas. His image in the center was buried as in a pillow by that swelling mass of paint. “It’s a wonderful effect!” I exclaimed. “It’s sheer incompetence.” Gandy said in his dreamy voice, painting as he spoke.

By that point he’d become a fixture in my dreams. Always he was a wild, prophetic figure, sometimes robed in white, a judge and a goad and a burden. Once I dreamed he was sitting in the rafters of his studio declaiming away, and we were down on the floor in tears, begging him to come down among us and paint again.

My memory of our next-to-last meeting is hazy. He’d called and asked to visit me where he was staying, teaching at some summer school. He wanted me to talk to his son, who had gone to college to major in music. Gandy wanted me to inspire Shane, or something. Nothing much happened; Shane was diffident, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Saying goodbye, Gandy suddenly kissed me on the lips.

The last time was in Brattleboro. I ran across him in front of the library where he was hitching. He asked me if I was going toward Newfane. I was not. He stood with his thumb out, talking away. I remember his broad and strangely handsome features under a dirty wool cap, his stocky, strong figure and shambling grace. I recalled him saying he had studied dance with Martha Graham. (I didn’t believe that, but apparently it’s true.) A pickup truck pulled over and the driver motioned him to get in back. Without ceasing his rap, Gandy clambered into the back of the truck and tumbled heavily to the bed, turning to continue his monologue to me. The truck drove away, his voice faded into the distance. I looked after it for a long time.

A year later I was back in Vermont for a visit, no longer a resident schoolteacher, now taking a crack at graduate school. I phoned Gandy’s house and got Shane, who told me what had happened: Gandy had gone to New York and on some back street dropped dead of a heart attack. By the time he was picked up his wallet was stolen. It was a week before Jocelyn found him in a morgue. He was 51. “His father and brother died the same way,” Shane told me. “It’s the curse of the Brodies.” So that darkness had been stalking him, shadowing his monologues. To Shane I said what one says, then for some reason asked about the self-portrait. “The figure turned into a tree,” Shane said, “but it’s him all the same.”

That was 1975. Dealers have some of his work, but I suspect a lot of Gandy’s paintings are still piled somewhere unsold. That’s what Jocelyn told me years after he died.

I don’t know how much of this recollection is true and how much I’ve imagined or dreamed. I still dream about Gandy.

Story

STORY – from a dream 11/088
ON THE WAY TO THE GAME

One, two, three. One, two, three. Okay, let’s check it. All right, it’s recording.
Okay, I, uh… I hope this little recorder holds up for a while because I’ve got some things to say before … Wait, is that a … No. Whew. Good. I don’t have to run like hell right now. I forgot my cattle prod. I can’t run anymore anyway.
I’m, ah, out on the street as you can hear, whoever you are. I’m trying to get to the stadium. It’s ten in the morning, maybe twelve blocks to the stadium. Decent day for a game, at least. No rain, just those high clouds you never used to see, pink on the top with lightning or something sparkling around in them. I don’t know if they ever figured out what that is.
The thing is, future people… Why do I say that? What future people? Who am I talking to? Well, the recorder will be here, maybe, so maybe somebody will be around to listen to it. Maybe even I’ll listen sometimes, to remember, with what time I have left.
Anyway I appear to have more memory left than most people these days, so I want to get this down. Maybe talking can make this, this mess… Christ, mess isn’t the word for it, nowhere close to the word for it. Ah, so I, I want to talk about it. Try to make some sense… That’s not the word either. There’s no sense in it at all.
I just left the house. See, I can remember that. This is good. Not many people on the street right now. Probably a lot at the game, but a lot of people just don’t leave the house anymore. Too scared. Bones picked clean on the streets to remind you about the risks of going out. The screams in the distance. It’s better during the day, though. As long as you remember your cattle prod.
At home it’s garbage day. Ha! So I got rid of the garbage the usual way. Even though, sure, it’s supposed to be against the law. But I still do it the usual way, like most people law or no law. I turn on the stochastic translator on the sink, it starts to whiz and click, the little ramps turn into a blur and the clicks turn into a hum, the garbage on the receiving tray gets kind of wavy and transparent, then it’s gone like a puff of smoke. Amazing gadget. No home should be without one. We love ’em. Snapped ’em up when the price came down.
The thing is, nobody knows whether it was the home translators, millions of them, that made the difference. We don’t know. We don’t really know. So now a lot of people including me just keep using them on the theory that things could hardly get more screwed up. The situation hasn’t changed much in a year or so, as far as anybody can tell. Sure, maybe one day suddenly everybody will get wavy and transparent and disappear like smoke. And there you go, end of problem. Unless we find ourselves in the Paleozoic Era or up in Betelgeuse or something. Which would not be fun. And which isn’t impossible, they say. Nothing, no thing whatever anymore is too impossible to happen. Just– Ow, dammit!…
Agh! I stumbled. No, Miss, I’m okay. Yeah, I’m fine. Nice day, huh? You going to the game? Good. Enjoy it. What? Yes, I’m Athletic Director. That’s me. Good… Thanks. Thanks. Enjoy the game. Go, Raptors!
What the heck did I stumble over? That’s… Oh, great. A femur, and it looks human. Just great. I’ll turn this off a…
Glrp. I want to … Eh, ah, as is well known, used to be well known, the stochastic translator was developed at our university. Huge accomplishment, no question about it. Earth-shaking, they said. Epochal. Jesus God in heaven that sounds funny now.
I’m at the corner of State and Executive. Here’s a bench, I’ll sit down a minute. I’m not in real good shape these days. Going to meet my maker before long, and it won’t be too soon. I can hear the cheers and the band at the game. Somebody made a touchdown. All the same who it was, there’s only our own team here.
A device that could send things forward and backward in time. I guess epochal is the word for it. Except for the little problem. It’s a one-way trip, and you couldn’t tell where or when things were going to or coming from. In time. At least not at first. Then where some of the things were coming from got very clear. Oh, very clear indeed.
They were trying to get rid of garbage, for godssake. That’s where it started. The garbage had gotten overwhelming everywhere, stacking up and stinking all over the place. Before then there’d been a little success dematerializing matter, in small ways. Some were worried that could be dangerous, could start some kind of chain reaction that would dematerialize everything. But that turned out to be easy to control. I’m not a scientist, but that’s what they said. Easy to control.
Wow, here’s a bus going by. Hear it? Not many busses anymore. Who wants to fool with them when there’s no money for fares, and only so much gas left in the storage tanks. The bus is full, though. From the yells I can tell they’re headed for the game. I’ll get up in a minute. God almighty, I am so tired.
What happened was, a guy in the physics department named Leonid-something was fooling around with this peculiar gadget with two side by side ramps facing in opposite directions, with an oddlooking chain that races around the outside of the ramps, and somehow that and the computer inside it created a beam or something that affects matter. He said he stumbled on it. Holy Mother of God, stumbled on it. So it looked like it could get rid of garbage at least, and everybody said hooray.
They started experimenting with disappearing larger and larger piles of garbage. Before long, though, the scientists noticed what they called “artifacts.” These were bits of rock or even strange smells that would show up when the garbage disappeared.
Like I say I’m no scientist, but somehow they figured out what was happening was that things were coming and going in time. Bits of things, like smells or pebbles. Naturally they started focussing on that issue. I guess they figured if the dematerialization of garbage didn’t get out of hand, didn’t start a chain reaction, neither would fooling with time. They were wrong, but it was all quite logical. That’s what they said. Logical!
I’m getting excited. Let me catch my Glrp. There’s Ben and his wife, they don’t see me. I don’t feel like talking to anybody right – Oh – Hi Ben! Hi Betty! Going to the game? See you there. No, I, I’m all right. Just resting a minute. Yes, it’s a voice recorder. I… You don’t want to know. Private…haha! Yeah. See you there.
Where… Ah. At first they called the thing a TrashMaster. When the artifacts started turning up and they realized what was happening, they renamed it a stochastic translator. That was when they developed the software to enhance the effect of moving around in time. I don’t know the math of course, but they said what the thing did was to analyze random patterns in, I don’t know what, the vibrations of the universe or something, and figure out probabilities. I’m no physicist, but I gather what happens is, in a flash the gadget takes random patterns and sorts them into possible ones then amplifies them into probable ones, and then in the room things get wavy and disappear, and sometimes near the translator there was a rock or a funny smell, all kinds of odd little things.
Before long they invented the receiving tray that would attract the artifacts, and that kept everything nice and manageable. Right. I’d forgotten. That’s the word they used for the tray: manageable. It was the same tray that later, in the home model, you used to dispose of garbage, sending it who knows where in the past or the future. People were crazy about it, the streets were cleaner, the city smelled good again. All so harmless, so convenient and manageable. I guess they assumed the garbage would end up in the middle of space or in some other dimension or something. But it didn’t. It stayed right here on Earth. Only not in the present time.
I was there when they unveiled the first translator, right in the middle of the football field. Reporters from everywhere in the world, news cameras all over. First they dematerialized some garbage, then they materialized an artifact. The device didn’t produce anything big that day, but what did materialize on the tray might have told them something. It was a tooth. A large, unidentifiable tooth broken off at the root. With blood on it. People got a good laugh out of that. It was the first artifact the public had ever seen, and it was plenty amazing I guess.
As amazing things do, after a few years it got familiar. People couldn’t wait for the home model to arrive. It was programmed not to produce artifacts but only once a week to dispose of garbage, or anything else soft and mushy you put on the tray, like a dead dog or whatever. It was programmed not to affect anything living, but before long people discovered a way to make it zap bugs and the like. At that point folks started some informal experiments that got pretty nasty. Things were changing. But of course it happened so slow, people hardly noticed.
I ought to get up in a minute. They expect the Athletic Director to put in an appearance at the games. Start me talking on this stuff, I don’t know where to stop. But how many people remember all this history now? All this epochal history. What a word. I’ll say it’s epochal!
First the home garbage translators started accepting living animals, which they weren’t supposed to do. Some really sick home experiments then. Then artifacts started showing up when and where they weren’t supposed to. Artifacts. That’s the word. Pretty fancy word for a twelve-foot sabre-toothed tiger in your back yard eating your pets, eating your kids too, if you turn your back for a minute. It didn’t happen all at once. It took years, long enough for us to get used to using translators in our daily lives, long enough for them to become indispensible. The world garbage crisis solved by a miracle of science and ingenuity and, some said, even divine intervention.
Only that artifacts started turning up on their own, nowhere hear a translator. Happened here and there, all kinds of weird stuff including at one point, this was in the papers, an old dirty tennis ball materialized in the swimming pool of the Indiana governor’s mansion, while the governor was swimming. Seemed funny at the time. Then after a few more years larger things started appearing. Some of them alive and hungry.
Like I say, it didn’t happen all at once. It was slow. Years. But one fine day in Minsk, Russia, there was a wooly mammoth tearing through a town garbage dump. By God, that got people’s attention. At that time they were building a Very Large Stochastic Translator inside a mountain in Switzerland, intending to study the history of the universe and all. Of course just as the VLST was getting finished after billions of bucks, they put the kibosh on it. Switch that thing on, you don’t know what’s going to go up like smoke or appear in the receiving area, but you know it’ll be very large and very bad.
Then the weather changed, those strange high clouds started forming. This damned miserable drizzle we have most of the time now. In other words all hell broke loose, bit by bit. I remember the day I looked out the window of the Student Union and on the street there were a polar bear and some kind of velociraptor watching something that looked like a giant wolf gnaw at a basketball. When the ball blew up they all ran away. One of the students who’d been playing basketball in the neighborhood was never seen again.
The government said, be careful, stay off the streets at night when the artifacts–they actually called them that–were most active, and during the day be sure to carry your handy six-foot cattle prod at all times. The cattle prod business became the world’s leading industry. A lot of my fellow citizens don’t remember when they weren’t carrying them. For some time the animals, one heck of a zoo of dinosaurs, mammoths, big cats, all kinds of creatures we had no idea ever existed, were out and about. At first they mostly prowled dumps, which is what told us where the garbage had gone. These things had developed a taste for our table scraps. They were probably eating them when they got translated. But there was not much edible in dumps anymore, most people used translators, so the animals got more interested in fresh meat. There’s been massive efforts to catch and kill them, of course, so the numbers never get large, but they turn up faster than they can be managed. So it’s not such a good idea to play basketball outside. Peculiar artifacts turn up not only from the past but apparently from the future as well, but–and this is ominous you have to admit–there never seems to be anything from the future that’s alive.
Everybody said, nothing to do about it, what’s done is done, we’ll learn to live with it/ Science will solve the problems soon, we love our garbage translators and we’re going to keep them. For a while scientists were working on a reception device that would show the past or future like a TV screen. The athletic department already had one of those on order, when they were ready, so we could study the games of the past. (They’d program them to blank out the future of course, but there are ways around that.) Then the weather changed. Then a lot of other things. That’s why we can’t get out of the city now, the roads north and south end in giant smoking sinkholes and the ones east and west are breaking apart. We don’t know why buildings inside the city aren’t crumbling, but there’s no guarantee they never will.
I remember the day, the TV broadcast when one of the inventors of the translator told the world what had happened. I remember his words exactly. “It turns out, unfortunately, that time is a mechanism. Like a machine. And it looks like somehow with the translators we’ve broken the mechanism. God knows how, but that’s what happened. We’ve broken time. We don’t know whether it’s only on Earth or everywhere, but here on this planet, time is unraveling. But I mean, my God, there’s going to be, I can’t…” And then ladies and gentlemen of the television audience, he broke down and cried like a little baby.
A month or so after that all the television screens went blank, the radios went mute, the internet expired. Around here, anyway. Maybe all over the world, but there’s no way to tell. The electricity from the dam is still on, though. The stadium still stands and night games look swell under the lights. And our stochastic translators still work.
Really I’ve got to get to the game. And jeez, now that I look at it, the power meter is running low on this recorder. I’ll sign off right now in a minute.
Ah.. What can I say? How to end? They, they used to say all politics is local. I guess the end of the world is local too. If it is the end. Sure, I hope it’s not, but I probably won’t be around to see it anyway. Some people say we’re going to a higher state. Translated to a higher state. Ha. Wish I… Well.
I remember the day I stopped at the box office to get my ticket for a game, and the smiling folks inside said you don’t need one anymore. Fine, I said. Do you know where I can get some food? I’m hungry. They smiled. Well, they said, most of us don’t get hungry now, so we can’t help you. Strange, isn’t it? But it’s not so bad. Enjoy the game.
Everybody’s memory has started to get kind of wavy and transparent. It’s starting to happen to me. When memory started to fade one of the first things to disappear, and this is a blessing I guess, was fear. Well, that’s not the word. Fear isn’t entirely gone and thank God for that, we need it. But terror, despair, you don’t see those so much anymore. You’d think the crime rate would be bad but it isn’t. I guess when you don’t have to eat and you aren’t scared, you don’t have to steal or bother anybody. People seem more, I don’t know, benevolent.
I used to go to church and pray a lot, go to confession and all that kind of thing, but not anymore. My sins are harder to remember. I can’t remember my late wife’s face. I can’t get in touch with the kids. Churches are mostly empty, what few priests are left don’t have much to say. They smile benevolently and give you a blessing from the maker of us all.
Did the maker of us all make the stochastic translator? If He did, maybe it shows He was getting tired of His creation. Wanted to wipe the slate clean and start over. Or maybe He needed to be alone again for an eternity or two. Or maybe it was just the human race He was tired of.
I’m losing my train of thought here. Most people aren’t hungry all the time anymore, like I am. Friends bring me old stuff from their pantries, because they don’t need it now. These days people mainly want to just enjoy themselves any way they can, like they used to. In this grand and great university town where everybody’s a big sports fan, we just keep going to the game, the football game that never ends.
Wow, here’s a bus. I’ll

About Musical Biography

TALK ON MUSICAL BIOGRAPHY FIRST GIVEN AT TUFTS, JANUARY 2006:
“LISTENING TO YOUR SUBJECT.”

Let me start with a quick tour of what I think I’m doing as a biographer and why, then get to what I can of the how.

I’m a composer who writes scholarly biographies of composers aimed at a wide audience. I hope to write things that can be of interest and use to trained musicians and scholars, to performing musicians, to the mass of readers and music lovers. I think there’s a need for compelling writing from within the profession that casts a broad net. And it seems to me that the point of view of the rare composer who writes about composers can integrate and complement the angles of musicologists and theorists.

I cast a broad net by emphasizing the person behind the notes: his ideals, personality, friends and lovers, his Bildung as the Germans call it—a person’s education and growth not only in knowledge but in life. This all functions within a particular historical moment and zeitgeist. I emphasize the personal not just to grab readers, but because of some convictions about music: the technical and formal elements that occupy us as musicians are important, but more important is the human element, Above all, music is something people do to move and to communicate with other people. To put it another way: music contains abstractions unique to the art, but they are not the real point. Music and musicians are part of the world, not isolated from it.

In the end, the goal is to paint a subject so that he stands up and casts a shadow, so that by the end of the book a reader feels they know this person as they would know a friend or a family member, or at least a long-time acquaintance. That’s how I feel about my subjects: I’m present at the birth, en route I rejoice and regret, criticize and applaud, and end up beside the grave. At the same time, as with friends and acquaintances, you keep your own council, and respect what you don’t and can’t know about another person. In the same way that what your subject doesn’t do or say can be just as revealing as what he or she does do or say, what we can’t know about somebody has to be part of our understanding of them.

I don’t see that there’s anything unusual about what I’m saying, as long as we’re talking about biography in general as distinct from musical biography. In fact, that’s a distinction that on the whole I don’t make. I don’t see how musical biography has to be innately different than any other kind. True, musical biography has its own history and tradition. We also know that this legacy includes a lot of 19th century theories and assumptions that most of us don’t subscribe to, such as the Romantic cult of the Genius as demigod. One way to escape the shibboleths of the past, not the only way but one way, is to say biography is biography: reporting a life to readers, whatever the subject’s occupation.

The technical aspect of music is the main difference between musical biography and, say, literary biography. The average reader can more or less follow a poem but doesn’t know from dominant seventh chords. As scholars, each of us has to deal with this issue based on our particular career, project, and projected audience. As I used to tell my writing students, who you are writing for has much to do with how you write: when we write for experts the technical is naturally more important; for a wider audience you try to find ways of talking about music that are not too technical yet also not flapdoodle. That’s not easy to do, and writing about music doesn’t come easily for me, but unfortunately that’s my job when I’m writing for a broad audience.

So I see myself as a biographer, period. Sort of. Meanwhile I have no doubt that if I weren’t primarily a composer, I’d be talking from here to sundown about “the art of biography.” Since most of my creative juices and ego are involved in composing rather than writing about composers, I don’t define biography as art. For me art is when you make it all up, when you get to play God. Fiction writers, of course, regularly use personal experience in their work. When I first tried writing fiction I was astonished at all the things emerging on the page from my life that I’d forgotten, that I didn’t know I knew. Yet to me a novel is still an invention, one that comes out of imagination working on experience and then goes back to its source: the world according to X.

I believe ultimately composers do the same thing: write from deep personal experience, which includes the experience of music. With any kind of art, if it doesn’t come from your guts it’s not going to reach anybody else’s. Music is no different. But with composers the process of turning life into art is much more veiled and mysterious than with, say, novelists. Much of what a composer writes rises from the history of music and the nature of sound, according to X. Like a novelist’s art but much more so, a composer’s art is involved in traditions of genre and craft, rules of the game, the technique and character of instruments, and so on.

For one example, I know Brahms’s adolescence playing in waterfront dives, where he was abused by the resident prostitutes, influenced his work, because you compose out of everything you are. What I can’t know, unless he had spelled it out, and he didn’t, is how Brahms’s childhood influenced his music. That, I would not presume to say. He did spell out that he believed his abuse influenced his life: he said it wrecked his relations with women, and I duly reported that.

In passing, I’ll note that based on my experience as composer and writer of both fiction and nonfiction, my current metaphor for the relationship of artist and work is a DNA molecule: two strands vitally connected in every part, at the same time individual streams, in some degree each with its own agenda, that can be separated and go off to fertilize something or somebody else.

So I call fiction an art, biography a craft. Because biography is a branch of history, where you can’t play God but have to submit humbly to what’s known, I also think of biography as a kind of higher journalism. Your first and primary job is to report who, what, where, when, and if you can, why. At one point in reading Brahms’s letters to his lifelong love Clara Schumann I found an unusual case of his pressuring her to bring her daughter Julie along on a visit. Only a year or so later did it become clear to Clara that he was in love with her daughter.

In a book, only after I’ve laid out the life as it was lived, the art as the artist conceived it, the art as the audience of its time perceived it (the latter being two quite different things), only then do I allow myself to judge, to gloss, to interpret–much of the time interpret in some quarantined way like an afterword or an endnote. While I resist interpreting an artist’s life, however, I freely interpret his work because it’s there to be responded to, so among other things to be interpreted.

I say biography is higher journalism simply because you have a lot more time to write it than other kinds of journalism, but the goals are similar: get the facts straight as possible, let the facts speak for themselves when possible, let your subjects speak for themselves when possible, and lay out the life in a clear and readable way. Fact and truth are the game, not ideology, and the reality that both fact and truth are unattainable doesn’t change that. Like all artists, in my creative work I’m in the profession of trying to do the impossible–compose as well as Mozart–so that’s a normal state of affairs for me.

As you respect fact as the coin of this particular game, I suggest that a biographer needs to respect the fact of another person’s life–the concrete reality of it, the integrity and also the mystery of it. I have a moral conviction that a person’s life was not lived in order for somebody else to interpret it for their own benefit. I’m not talking about avoiding unpleasant things in your subject; you don’t. The way I honor the reality of a life is to let the facts of somebody’s life and words speak with minimal interference from me.

Now I’m getting around to my title: listening to your subject. In my Brahms and Ives biographies, much of what seems like interpretation is simply an explication of what they said about themselves, however obliquely. With Brahms especially I came to trust his hard-headed common sense and self-knowledge. Brahms didn’t lie to other people and he didn’t lie to himself. When he said in a letter by way of explaining some of the gloom of the Second Symphony, “I am a severely melancholic person,” he knew what he was talking about.

Charles Ives was a different matter. I came to trust his idealism and essential good-heartedness in nearly everything. Even if I found some of his ideas about life and art delusional, they were magnificent delusions, for the best of reasons. He believed, among other things, that humanity was rising inevitably toward divinity, and that music plays an irreplaceable part in in that rise. When it came to Brahms I ended up agreeing with him about a lot of things, and wishing I could agree more with Ives. I wish I could share Ives’s faith in the best side of humanity.

With Beethoven it was yet another matter. I think he was given to not so magnificent illusions and delusions about a lot things, including himself. I found that you can only fully trust Beethoven when it comes to his musical wisdom, skill, and judgment–there you can trust him almost absolutely. In the rest of his life, not so much. In his better moments Beethoven was quite aware of that himself. He once wrote in a letter: “Everything I do outside music is stupid and badly done.” I took him at his word.

In writing I’m guided by no theory and see my subject through no prism except in light of an inevitable limitation that he’s him and I’m me. I start a book by doing anything I can to wipe out of mind everything I think I know about my subject, and start over from scratch. I’ve found that the best insights come from working intensely with the whole of the material you’ve collected. Until then I collect facts with an attempt at zenlike detachment, waiting until the facts start to speak to me–often by way of two or three independent facts coming together and striking a spark. A simple example of facts coming together happened with the Ives biography. Part of the Ives family legend had Lincoln observe to General Grant of George Ives’s band as they marched past, “They say that’s the best band in the army.” That may have happened, but by putting two dates together I realized Ives’s father was not himself there that day—he was home in Connecticut recovering from an injury. He didn’t witness his greatest moment of glory.

The structure of my biographies I call “chronology with hooks”: the life is discovered as it was lived, the way we all discover our lives. Then at certain points it’s logical to bring up larger issues. Charles Ives was pervaded by his childhood in Danbury and the ideas of his band-director father, so I began with chapters about Danbury and its people, its hat-making industry, its bands, about the 19th-century brass-band tradition, about music and the Civil War, above all about the marvelous, eccentric Ives family.

When I looked at Brahms’s Schatzkästlein, the book where as a teenager he wrote down favorite quotes from authors, I saw the writers were mostly high-Romantic: Novalis, Wackenroder, E.T.A. Hoffmann, et al. In other words, Johannes was a very Romantic young man, though not such a Romantic adult. His teenage years were the hook to talk about Romanticism and a Romantic Bildung. When Brahms moved to Vienna, it was time to talk about Vienna–always a gratifying thing to do. With Beethoven, Brahms, and now with Mozart I’m dealing with Vienna in different parts of its history, from the Enlightenment to the fin de siècle.

Because I respect the reality and integrity of my subject’s lives as they lived them, I don’t shape the life into a book. The life shapes the book–my subject’s high points and low, joys and sorrows all given their due, in what approximates their true chronology, their true importance and true proportions, as doggedly if imperfectly as I can discern them. I’ve been accused of rambling, but that’s how it goes. I’d rather my books be more like life and less like literature. And my current favored metaphor for life is an improvisation on themes–often unconscious themes.

Some of the themes of a person’s life are obvious, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Ives’s hometown of Danbury was important to him, so it was important to me. I began the book with an evocation of his town. One of the main themes of Brahms’s life was his early and lasting fame, all the satisfactions, frustrations, and terrors that entailed. His book began with a scene of roaring but ambiguous applause. Beethoven’s ideals came from his youth in Bonn, so I spent a lot of time with the town, its people, its Enlightenment ideals, the Freemasons and Illuminati.

The less obvious themes of a person’s life are the things you notice turning up again and again in the material. With Brahms, it slowly sank in to me that in company his main conversational gambit was to find out the going opinion and then attack it. Brahms was the perennial Devil’s Advocate. If he was around Wagner fans, he lambasted Wagner. If people were running down Wagner, he suddenly became “the best of Wagnerians.” Eventually I realized what he meant by that: he admired Wagner’s music as music, his achievement for its ambition and scope, but dismissed all the hoopla and propaganda with which Wagner buttressed his work.

Again, I don’t write out of any theories. My themes and ideas come from my guy. You keep watch on your subject to find patterns, habits, themes. It’s a bit like watching a spouse, to find the things we need to know in order to live with them. Here’s something that helped me understand biography. Years ago I read a review of a bio of the American writer James Agee that essentially painted him as a monster. The reviewer wondered, if Agee was that bad, why so many people were so fond of him. At the time I was in a writer’s group with Alex Eliot, who was once art critic of Time magazine and knew nearly everybody. I asked Alex about the critic’s question. “Well, it’s pretty simple,” Alex said. “When Jim Agee was sober he was a great guy and everybody loved him. When he was drunk he was a bastard. And he was drunk a lot.” The biographer had apparently never figured out that his subject was a sweet guy at heart but a mean drunk. These are the kinds of fundamental human dynamics that biographers need to figure out–when we can. When we can’t, we should leave it alone, or at least be clear about when we’re speculating.

Of course, often you can’t figure it out. In the end you’ll most likely never find the things locked in a person’s heart that may explain everything about them. Often, surely, that person doesn’t know them either. In movie terms, you rarely find Rosebud–and if you did find it, there’s no guarantee it would explain anything, and if it did explain something, you might not understand the explanation. There’s no answer to this inevitable incapacity of biography, our inability ultimately to know another person, except to note that whatever people do and say and write reveals them in a more than superficial way, if you know how to read the signs. No one can say or write five words without telling you something about themselves. Even though Brahms, for example, was guarded in his letters because he feared they might end up in print, he could not help revealing himself in them.

Which is all to say that you need to listen intently to what your subject says, how he talks, what he means. You listen intently, even if your subject is lying, even if he appears to be nuts. When John Kirkpatrick first met Charles Ives, he happened to use the phrase, “for simplicity’s sake.” Kirkpatrick was horrified to find the word “simplicity” had triggered one of Ives’s fits. Ives jumped to his feet and went on and on excoriating simplicity until, with the cry “God DAMN simplicity,” he fell back exhausted. Kirkpatrick thought he’d killed him. I don’t think Kirkpatrick ever understood why Ives reacted so violently, but I think I do. Simplicity was a word the emerging populist / Americana school of composers was using to belabor Ives and his friends, and he knew it.

Brahms was fascinating to observe as a writer and talker, wonderfully subtle, ironic, sardonic, and funny. When he was most serious and closest to his heart was generally when he was most guarded and oblique, but I think he wanted to be understood. He once noted in a letter, “I only write half sentences. The reader has to fill in the other half.” I felt that nobody had tried to understand the unspoken half of what Brahms said. For example, his crack about the Fourth Symphony: “Oh, once again I’ve just thrown together a bunch of waltzes and polkas.” That’s a joke and a good one, like most of Brahms’s jokes, but it’s also half serious: the Fourth Symphony is largely made of dances, however solemn and mournful, though the scherzo is a kind of polka.

When our subject writes a letter, we need to remember where they are in their lives and to whom they’re writing, what the history is between them. There’s an often-quoted letter Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann where he says, “Passions are not natural to mankind…The man in whom they overstep the limits…should seek medicine for his life and health.” That letter is generally taken as a statement of principles by Brahms, and that’s one dimension of it. But there are other dimensions. The letter was also written to a woman Brahms had in effect recently jilted; in part, he’s exhorting Clara to get over it. And third, it was written to a woman who in fact was given to bouts of hysteria, and Brahms wished Clara could get over that, too.

Now I’m going to present a group of quotes from my three biographies, with my glosses.

Charles Ives, writing supposedly about Hawthorne’s stories but really about his own music: “Not something that happens, but the way something happens.” By that Ives means that, say, the way musical amateurs sing a hymn or play a march, for all its roughness, is an expression of something deeply felt. For Ives the “something” is, say, the musical notes on the page, but they are only the outward symbol of a fundamental inner reality—call it psychology, call it spirit. The roughness itself, the way a piece is sung or played by everyday people including the wrong notes, is part of the real music. Drunk bandsmen on the march at the Fourth of July parade might fall off the beat or forget the key, but to Ives that was as vital a part of the music as the notes, all of it rising from the human heart and soul. As Ives wrote of amateur town bands: “They didn’t always play right & together and it was as good either way.” For Ives not the notes of a hymn but the way they come out of people’s mouths and feelings is a symbol of the eternal spirit at the core of humanity.

Johannes Brahms, telling a friend how he replied to Nietzsche concerning the latter’s Hymn
of Life, which the philosopher had sent him hoping for praise. Brahms told a friend that it was “much the same as any young student’s effort.” But later, to the same friend: “I’ve done it! I’ve extricated myself beautifully from this Nietzsche business! I simply sent him my visiting card and thanked him politely for the stimulus he had given me. The amusing thing is that I quietly avoided mentioning the music at all!”

Now Brahms to Clara Schumann, concerning Eduard Hanslick’s celebrated tract On Beauty in Music: “I found so many stupid things on first glance that I gave it up.” Now Brahms to Eduard Hanslick, concerning On Beauty in Music: “I must also send you my most sincere thanks for your book Beauty in Music, to which I owe many hours of enjoyment, of clarification, indeed literally of relief. Every page invites one to build further on what has been said, and since in doing so…the motives are the main thing, one always owes you double the pleasure. But for the person who understands his art in this manner, there are things to be done everywhere in our art and science, and I will wish we might soon be blessed with such excellent instruction on other subjects.”

Have we caught Brahms being a hypocrite? Political maybe, but not hypocritical. Brahms was a relentlessly and sometimes brutally honest man. But after all, Hanslick was not just a personal friend of Brahms; he was the most powerful music critic in Europe. I came to realize that like the note to Nietzsche, but on a grander scale, the letter to Hanslick is a masterpiece of Brahmsian irony. Some translations: “Every page invites one to build further [you don’t go very far ]…the motives are the main thing [I know you mean well]…I wish we might soon be blessed with such excellent instruction on other subjects [Don’t do this kind of thing anymore, you’re not any good at it].”

In both cases the letters did the trick: Hanslick proudly quoted his letter in a memoir, and Nietzsche went about telling people his tune had received “deep signs of respect from Dr. Brahms.” One can hear Brahms’s lusty laughter. He was, by the way, an imaginative practical joker. At one point he convinced his musicologist friend Gustav Nottebohm that he had stumbled on a new sketch by Beethoven, wrapped around a sausage in the park. It was a current pop song, written on old music paper by Brahms in an expert imitation of Beethoven’s handwriting. He had paid the sausage-seller to give it to Nottebohm. Likely he dined out on that story for a long time.

Charles Ives, introducing his collection 114 Songs: “Greek philosophers, ward politicians, unmasked laymen, and others, have a saying that bad habits and bad gardens grow to the unintendedables; whether these are a kind of daucus carota, jails, mechanistic theories of life, is not known, but the statement is probably or probably not true.” Daucus carota is the species name of the common carrot. The sentence is just like one of Ives’s more riotous pieces: an accumulation of things piling up rapidly to a final punchline, and that punchline “probably or probably not true” shows his love of paradox. He’s basically saying that the songs have gotten so out of hand that he has to get them out of the house. The sentence also shows how gnarled, oblique, and apologetic Ives could get when presenting his music to the world. Meanwhile it further reveals that in his music, prose, and person Ives was a very funny guy, in a kind of proto-surrealistic way. He once sent a hilarious letter actually to his daughter, but written to “Raggedy Ann Ives,” who was Edie’s doll.

Brahms, writing to his publisher Simrock to ask for an advance: “The so-often-praised goodness and charity of your Well-bornship give me the courage to approach you with a great proposition. My situation is terrible, a horrifying future stares me in the face; the abyss appears yawning before me, I fall therein unless your saving hand draws me back. With the last one-mark note I must now proceed at once to the Igel restaurant, but with what feelings shall I eat, and indeed, drink!” Brahms was also very funny, generally at somebody’s expense though often at his own expense, and there was usually something serious concealed behind the joke. When he was rehearsing one of his quartets the violist asked if he liked their tempos. “Yes,” Brahms said. “Especially yours.”

Beethoven, four letters from a single month, August 1819:

[To his patron Archduke Rudolf] “The persistent worries connected with my nephew [Karl] who has been morally almost completely ruined are largely the cause of my indisposition. At the beginning of this week I myself had again to assume the guardianship, for the other guardian had resigned after perpetrating a good many misdemeanors for which he has asked me to pardon him.” Beethoven had adopted the son of his late brother and was trying to keep him away from his mother, whom he called “The Queen of the Night.”

[To a Viennese acquaintance] “Recently an attempt was made to make my nephew appear before a commission. That I cannot possibly allow. He is innocent and that I can testify so far as he is concerned. The meager support which the guardian I appointed received…coupled with the mother’s wicked intrigues is the only reason why my poor nephew and ward has been put back in his studies for a whole year.” [This is one of Beethoven’s rare accusations of Karl’s mother that was likely true. He considered her capable of anything, not omitting hiring herself as a prostitute and poisoning her husband. She was, to be sure, a piece of work.]

[To another acquaintance] “The best thing would be to resign the guardianship without choosing anyone and to leave Karl entirely to his fate. For already he is an utter scamp and is most fit for the company of his own mother and my pseudo-brother.”

[To Archduke Rudolf] “In the world of art, as in the whole of our great creation, freedom and progress are the main objectives. And although we moderns are not quite as far advanced in solidity as our ancestors, yet the refinement of our customs has enlarged many of our conceptions as well.”

Whether he is being idealistic, paranoid, or at wit’s end, Beethoven’s language is direct,
concrete, uncensored, and without irony (except occasional blunt and bitter irony). Yet
because of his capriciousness, much of what he says can’t be taken at face value.

There’s much more to be said but I have to finish somewhere, so I’ll do that with a few bits of ideas. I’ve spoken about writing with respect for the life as it was lived, and reporting that life clearly, fairly, and fully. I add that anyone’s life is not mainly lived in ideas and abstractions but in feelings. Feelings are facts too; feelings are an important part of the story. For me, the function of writing is to be clear and readable, but also to convey the emotions of your story so that the reader understands them. Many of the emotions are obvious: Brahms loved his mother, he was sad when she died. You don’t need a citation to know these things, you only have to be human. His mother was important to Brahms, and what’s important to my subject is important to me. Somebody once took me to task for talking so much about Ives’s illness: “He was an executive, executives get heart attacks, it’s boring.” All I could say was that Ives was seriously ill and that had much to do with his later life and career, so I had to report it.

So the form and style of my subject’s life is the form and style of my book, their themes my themes. Charles Ives was involved in music, philosophy, aesthetics, politics, business, family, and more. To get all that in, and to project the eccentricity and the paradoxes of that all-embracing man, I resorted to three kinds of chapters, occasional imagined episodes, and endnotes of all kinds, not omitting an illustrative story about my highschool band: we set out playing the Star-Spangled Banner in two keys at once, with Ivesian results. Ives believed that one should stand up and say one’s piece as an individual, and in my endnotes, I did. Meanwhile in his music Ives wrote what he called “shadow lines,” and the endnotes were the shadow text of my biography of him. That was my Ivesian book about Ives.

The challenge of writing about Brahms was that except for some dramatic post-adolescent years and a tragic end of life, because everyone’s life ends tragically, Brahms did relatively little but write music, perform music, hang out in cafes and taverns, visit brothels, and fight with his friends. He lived in other words an exemplary composer’s life. In contrast to Ives there was an enormous literature about Brahms’s music, and I felt his work was generally well understood. What I felt was not well understood was his personality, so I concentrated on that. My Brahmsian book about Brahms was a straightforward, hard-headed, craftsmanly affair, with well-behaved endnotes. Some were disappointed in that book because they assumed the Ives was “the way I write biography,” and the Brahms isn’t like that. But there is no way I write biography. There is only the subject at hand.

With Beethoven I was haunted by his words about being the most wretched of mortals. His life was heaped with misery and for him it was only made endurable and meaningful by music. In my book about Beethoven his music had to redeem his life and make it bearable. Thus the subtitle: Anguish and Triumph.

Which is all to say that when I’d finished the Ives book I ran across a line of philosopher Stanley Cavell’s that expressed the method I’d instinctively arrived at. I think it’s a good way to conceive biography and a lot else, and a good way to end here. Cavell said: “The way to overcome theory correctly…is to let the object of your interest teach you how to conceive it.”

.

THE SWEET SLIME OF CURTIS AND LANCASTER

 

I’m a longtime fan of the movie The Sweet Smell of Success, but my admiration has redoubled after seeing it for the first time in a theater. Appropriately, it was the venerable Brattle St. arthouse in Harvard Sq, where the Bogart revival began in the 50s and Bergman got his American foothold. I’ve been watching movies there since 1964. As usual with classics at the Brattle, some of the audience seemed to have the script memorized: they chuckled before the lines arrived.

There are films you admire because they’re profound as well as well-made: Vertigo, Persona, 2001. Some you admire for their sheer near-perfection. Two I cite for the latter quality are Dr. Strangelove and Sweet Smell.

I won’t spend much time on the plot of Sweet Smell—I’ll refer you to the Wikipedia article, which is pretty good. It appeared in 1957. Bottom-feeding press agent Sidney Falco wants attention from the most famous and feared of columnists, J. J. Hunsecker. (The names evoke the characters.) Sidney will do anything, betray anybody, to climb the ladder—though there is a small but nagging murmur of conscience. J. J. has nothing but contempt for Sidney and his ilk, but he’s also dependent on them for his items. He has a younger sister, Susie, who lives with him in his penthouse. Their relationship may not be literally incestuous but is psychologically so. She has a boyfriend, a jazz musician, whom J. J. wants out of the picture. “You’re all I’ve got, Susie,” he says to her. It’s maybe the only honest and human thing J. J. says in the movie. He wants Sidney to wreck the relationship and preferably the musician too. Sidney has qualms, but he beats them back. The rewards of serving J. J.’s corruption can be great. I’ll leave the plot at that.

What I mean by near-perfection is the way the elements of the film work together. All the elements have earned boundless praise individually. Start with the script, begun by Ernest Lehman based on his own story, thoroughly reshaped and rewritten by Clifford Odets. The latter has been largely forgotten, but in his day he was celebrated as a leftie playwright whose immediate disciples included Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky. Odets’s plays of the 30s include Golden Boy. By the end of the decade he was in Hollywood. He spent most of the rest of his life there, writing screenplays and drinking himself to death. His reputation as a socially conscious writer tanked when he sold out in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Those contemptible episodes tended to ruin or derail both those who caved—Elia Kazan, Sterling Hayden—and those who didn’t—Paul Robeson, Orson Welles. The eventual HUAC blacklist included over 300 Hollywood figures.

Tony Curtis remembered Odets pounding at the typewriter with an open bottle of whiskey next to it. Some of the script was filmed hours after the lines were written. Director Alexander Mackendrick would lay out the pages on the floor, trying to make sense of them. Yet in the end it’s one of the greatest scripts ever to come out of Hollywood. It’s most famous for its zingers, legendary in themselves: “You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.” “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” “Everybody knows Manny Davis—except for Mrs. Manny Davis.” “Here’s your head. What’s your hurry?” And above all: “I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” But the script is a great deal more than a collection of dazzling lines. Every one comes out of its character and amplifies that character. The story is beautifully shaped, with a rising line of tension and corruption that overwhelms everything in its path. In the end, everybody loses: Sydney beaten up by the police, J. J. losing his sister and only real human connection, his sister heading out to nowhere to see if she can find a life, and the prospects don’t look so good.

The performances. Nobody at the time knew that certified big-boxoffice stars Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster could actually act, or would care to. Least of all that they would take on parts of repellent characters. The film flopped with audiences because they didn’t want to see their favorites covered in slime—though the reviews were prescient and glowing. Tony Curtis was at that point the leading pretty boy in movies, familiar in sword-and-sandal epics, romantic stuff, light comedy. He was felt to be limited by his dropdead looks and his Brooklyn accent. His line delivery in the cheesy historical Taras Bulba is legendary: “Yondah lies da castle of my faddah.”

But Curtis had a lot in him, and with Sweet Smell he knew he had something meaty and he wanted to show his stuff. He fought for the part. The fact is, in the relatively few roles Curtis got in movies with strong scripts and directors, he usually nailed it, whether in Sweet Smell or Some Like it Hot. His Sidney in Sweet Smell is astonishing, all burning eyes, kinetic energy, searing sarcasm and a brilliant gift for improvised manipulations and betrayals—though never brilliant enough to move him one rung up the ladder. Now and then, though, in his eyes in the most subtle way you see regret and the gnawing of conscience, though you know it won’t last. Curtis is onscreen most of the movie. In his eyes, his face, his voice, his body, he’s never less than exhilarating and horrifying to watch. It’s one of the great performances in all film, unsurpassed by a lot of the supposedly classier actors including, say, Olivier and Guinness.

Lancaster is on about the same level, in an opposite way. Here’s where the relationships and balances of the movie come in. Sidney is ablaze all the time, J. J. as cold and calm as a snake waiting for prey to come to him. He’s on top of the world and he knows it, expects it as his due. To insult me, he tells Sidney, is to insult sixty million people, my readers. (He’s based on the notorious columnist Walter Winchell.) J. J.’s face is impassive, but his rage and revenge and corruption are revealed in little moments, little tics of eyes and lips. Curtis is over the top, Lancaster all subtlety, and that’s why they play off each other so well. Director Mackendrick had Lancaster wear his own heavy glasses, which look somehow threatening. But he smeared the lenses of the glasses with vaseline, so Lancaster could not focus on anything, and that contributed to his look of scary detachment. Often when J. J.’s talking to you, saying terrible things, he’s not looking at you.

Director Alexander Mackendrick. I don’t know how he did it, because neither before or after did he do anything like it. This most echt-New York, echt-Broadway, echt-American movie was directed by a Scotchman, though born in Boston, whose most celebrated film is the immortal Alec Guiness/Peter Sellers comedy The Ladykillers, among the most British of movies. Mackendrick managed to hold together a chaotic situation in which the script was being written day by day and some scenes were filmed without a script. Lancaster as producer was touchy, interfering. At the premiere Lancaster blamed the commercial failure on Lehman and threatened to beat him up for getting sick and leaving the production. (“Go ahead,” said Lehman. “I can use the money.”) In the end Mackendrick shaped a classic of clear arcs and gathering gloom, with a script like a stream of bullets.

It’s the cinematography that welds it all together. It was by James Wong Howe, who came from China and somehow by the 1930s had risen to the top of the profession in Hollywood. One of his Oscars was for Hud. He remains one of the greats of cinematographers, with Gregg Toland and a handful of others. Sweet Smell is usually called a film noir, but I don’t think it’s really part of that genre. It’s a one-off, a genre unto itself, though its influence has been enormous. Noirs are classically dark and grainy, like Double Indemnity and The Naked City. Sweet Smell has two lighting modes, both of them unforgettable, neither of them grainy and dark. Many of the scenes have a weird lucidity, crystalline in lighting, icy in effect. Some of the interiors look like they were shot in glaring fluorescent light. Somehow that look makes the darkness they depict more unnerving. The other lighting mode is used mostly for J. J.: he’s lit from above, casting long shadows down his face. I suspect this had a big influence on the top-lighting of The Godfather, among later movies.

The music has two aspects too, both of them involving mid-50s jazz in its prime. The actual Chico Hamilton Quintet is in residence, providing cool jazz (the guitarist boyfriend is in the group). And there’s a blaring, hairy, brilliant big-band element by Elmer Bernstein, an old hand as Hollywood composer, best known for splashy scores like The Ten Commandments and The Magnificent Seven but also delicate ones like his work in To Kill a Mockingbird. (Elmer was not related to Leonard Bernstein, but they were friends.) The old line for success as a film composer is this: to know how to write in every style but your own. Bernstein’s big-band stuff for Sweet Smell welds itself indelibly to the story and images and lighting: dissonant, glaring, scary. It’s the ancestor of a lot of intense jazzy themes to come by among others Henry Mancini: Peter Gunn.

Helping out are the secondary performances—some excellent, like Emile Meyer’s grinning, crooked cop and Barbara Nichols’ abused cigarette girl Rita–others at least good enough, such as Susan Harrison as the helpless Susie. (Her acting career didn’t go far after this.)

The perfection is in how all these elements work together, amplify each other. You can’t imagine the film without any of them: story, script, acting, lighting, music are welded together in a seamless, brutally effective whole. It’s what all movies aspire to but few reach at this level. It’s what we composers aspire to: to weld sound and rhythm and structure and emotion into a seamless whole. Music and movies after all are closely allied, because they both move in time.

You come out of Sweet Smell of Success feeling like you’ve been dipped in slime, but no less exhilarated, partly by the inexhaustible energy of the whole thing (you end up feeling at least a little sorry for Sidney), no less by the energy and mastery of the filmmaking. And the best way to experience that as with all great movies is in the theater, where they were made to be seen. I remember taking in Lawrence of Arabia on a big screen in 70mm, and I’ve never quite gotten over it. Even on the Brattle’s smallish screen, the effect of The Sweet Smell of Success was gigantic.

 

EXPRESSION AND EMOTION IN MUSIC

[The below was written for my new intro to music for Basic Books, due to come out later this year as best I can tell. I’m posting my original essays here because most of this material was cut from the book.]

 

When I used to teach classes in musical analysis I insisted that my students include in their essays some take on the emotional side of the piece. At first this generally got uneasy responses, because talking about emotion in the academy tends to be verboten: emotion is subjective, personal, arbitrary, therefore not scholarly. But I persisted, telling students that when a classful of musicians agree on the emotional tone of a piece, that’s interesting; when they don’t agree, it’s equally interesting. Each case tells us something important about the composer and the piece. I also think that a performer needs to have his or her own sense of what a piece is expressing; that’s what helps put a piece across. As we said over and over at the conservatory: there’s a great deal more to performing than playing the right notes and sounding pretty.

I’m a classical musician first of all because that kind of music moves me more deeply than any other kind (though I’m interested in all sorts of music). The analytical and historical aspects are absorbing, but for me the technicalities lie well behind the feelings. I’ve been known to go through a whole performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass with tears in my eyes. If I didn’t feel music that deeply I wouldn’t have gone into it in the first place, given that for most of us the field is a manifestly stupid way to try to make a living. I can’t imagine why anybody would get involved with music for any other reason than emotion and love. Well, that plus talent. As a friend said to me: “I play the cello because I’m good at it.”

I’ll say three things at the outset of what is going to be a clearly unscientific discussion of musical expression. First, musicians use the term “expression” in two ways. To play “expressively” means to play with feeling whatever the emotion at hand may be in the piece. Talking about what a pieces “expresses” concerns the particular tone. Second, like many musicians and listeners I believe that music is an emotional language beyond words, so its essence can’t be captured in words (though it can be useful to try—thus my books). Third, I like the conclusion of philosopher Suzanne Langer, who called instrumental music “an unconsummated symbol.”

The extent of what Langer means by symbol is too much to get into here, but the basic idea is that a symbol is a story, painting, image, event, etc. that we respond to in a complex emotional way rather than a directly informational way. That’s the difference between denotation and connotation. A stop sign at an intersection denotes that we should stop. At the same time, it may represent to us all the damn things in the world that tell us what to do, that get in our way, that mess with our lives. To someone else, a stop sign may elicit a comforting feeling of order, the social contract, the need to for caution. In each of these cases we’re responding to the stop sign’s connotations. In other words, we’re responding to it as a symbol.

Langer felt that our response to art and much of the rest of life is a texture of symbols, but that instrumental music, lacking words or clear imagery, is a kind of blank slate that we nonetheless respond to as if it were a tangible symbol. What the symbol is, in any given piece, is largely up to our own responses. So, “an unconsummated symbol.”

These are ideas I subscribe to. The thing is, however, that in practice music is much, much more complicated than that. In most vocal music, for example, the words tell us the subject and imply emotions, and most composers want to express the emotional and even physical sense of the words (though sometimes they might write music that inflects or even contradicts the words). In a Schubert song, when the story turns sad he usually shifts from a major to a minor key; meanwhile he jumps on every image in the text, from a spinning wheel to a tree in the wind, and pictures it viscerally.

A second complication is that most advanced musical cultures have familiar signals for emotions that listeners absorb by being part of the culture. We tend to hear music in major keys as somewhere on the happy spectrum and minor keys as more somber. But in fact, in the 18th century Bach didn’t have so strong a sense of that association; he wrote some cheery pieces in minor and some manifestly sad ones in major. Still, his time had a “doctrine of the affections” that assigned particular emotions to specific musical gestures—some having to do with pitch, some with rhythm (a joyful piece will tend to be livelier, a gloomy one slower). One famous example is the descending chromatic bass line that undergirds the crucifixion movement of Bach’s B Minor Mass. In the Baroque, drooping half steps were a standard representation of sadness unto tragedy. Beethoven was still using that convention when he wrote the Pathétique Piano Sonata, whose leading motif of a falling half step clearly represents pathos.

India has one of the oldest and most sophisticated musical cultures, involving an elaborate system of emotional representation. Traditionally there are eight expressive areas, called rasas; they include sadness, love, valor, laughter, and so on. A musical work, called a raga, is largely improvised according to intricate rules. Each raga has its particular rasa or mixture of them, its rhythmic meter, its appropriate time of day, its appropriate season, and so on. Each is also based on a particular scale, with rules about how that scale must be inflected in that particular raga. Musical connoisseurs in India hear all this, I assume, in the same way as we hear a happy versus a sad piece. I am a longtime enthusiast for Indian music, but I don’t hear any of that because I didn’t grow up in that culture.

All this is to say that our culture teaches us from childhood how to listen to its music in terms of conventions of melody, harmony, rhythm, and color that are associated with emotions, tension and release, times of day (a serenade, for example, is an evening song), even landscapes (as in a pastoral work). Most composers of the past made use of those conventions in some degree or other. Beethoven was a supreme master of abstract form, but in his Missa solemnis the word ascendit is predictably set to a rising line and descendit to a descending one, and likewise for every other word in the text that can be viscerally expressed. And, remember, Beethoven wrote the Pastoral Symphony.

When I was composing my piano quintet Midsummer Variations, I wasn’t particularly thinking about its expressive direction, or rather I was feeling the expression without defining it. Only at the end did I realize that every bit of this piece written in a country hilltown in the middle of summer was about that—even more specifically, about New England midsummer, because summer here is so poignantly evanescent. All that had been unconscious, but it was still real. So if I had not attached that title to the piece, would it remind listeners of New England midsummer? I doubt it, but how listeners respond might be close to my feelings about the season. In any case, I think the tone of that piece has a strong sense of being about something.

When I’ve experimented with writing fiction I found that the events of my life external and internal, many of which I thought I’d forgotten, were flowing onto the page. That’s how fiction happens, from an amalgam of experience and invention. I believe that when we compose music it likewise comes from our lives, even if–as with my midsummer piece–we may not realize it at the time, or ever. If a work of art doesn’t come from the artist’s guts, it’s not likely to have any life of its own. Still, as with fiction, to write something happy or sad does not mean that the artist was feeling that way at the time. Famously, some of the most joyful works of Beethoven and Mozart were written when they were depressed. To write about joy or sorrow you have only to be acquainted with them. Fortunately and unfortunately, all of us are. Nor can we as listeners be expected to feel exactly what the composer was trying to convey. We have to see it through our own lens. Ultimately, the artist is supplying us with stuff to dream on.

So does all this mean that Langer is wrong about music being an unconsummated symbol? I still say that in a larger sense she’s right: beyond cultural conventions, there is still a lot that we have to fill in for ourselves. At the same time, while each culture teaches its people how to hear its music, there are potent if elusive universals. Joyous music tends to be fast, melancholy music slow; minor keys sound “darker” so are good for darker feelings. Music can mimic the sensation of movement, of breathing or sighing, of weeping, of certainty or surprise, of excitement or sexuality. The rise and fall of tension in music echoes the rise and fall of feelings. All the same, many more or less scientific attempts to define universals of emotion in music haven’t come up with much. I do think that universal responses and emotional qualities exist, but they’re hard to pin down. In any case, our response to music I believe is an intensely individual synthesis of personal and universal qualities, plus ones that have been imbued by our culture. (See “Specific Emotions in Music” below for more ideas in this direction.)

Again, the personal element is critical. A roomful of people may agree on the general tone of a piece, but when it gets down to the details, every listener will have a distinct response based on their personality, their experience, their mood, what they had for lunch, any number of factors. For me that individuality of response is one of the wonderful things about music. Sure, our responses to a poem or a painting are also individual, but with instrumental music that aspect is central if this composition in sheer tone is to “mean” anything to us. That’s what the Romantics exalted about instrumental music: it gets to our feelings directly, without having to be filtered through language or logic or story or image (though it can be so filtered, if words are involved).

The whole matter of expression is still more complicated, but I can only touch on further issues. For one, some composers are more emotionally direct than others. Beethoven set out to express human passions and expected his listeners to be sensitive to what he was saying. When I write about Beethoven’s music it tends to give me good adjectives, even when the tone is ambiguous; I’ve written about Beethoven’s touching major-key pieces as “minorish majors” and their opposite, “majorish minors.” He is, in other words, intentionally transparent in his expression and in his implied narratives (though less so in the late music). Brahms sometimes and Mozart much of the time I find more elusive, often poised exquisitely between qualities. With those two composers I often have to resort to adverbs: tenderly, excitedly, and the like.

At the same time, every piece is constantly being renewed in performances, so its expressive quality evolves. That is one of the great strengths of classical music: the silent notes on the page are brought to life in constantly new versions. I remember coming out of a performance of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto by Christian Tetzlaff, James Levine, and the Boston Symphony saying, “I’ve known that piece for thirty years and never realized how weird it is! There ought to be new performance indications for it: insectoid, fidgetissimo.” Then I heard the celebrated Hilary Hahn recording and it sounded like a Romantic concerto. In an interview I asked Hilary if she deliberately set out to play it that way. Her response was basically, “Well, duh, it is a Romantic concerto.” It is, if you make it work. Both those versions of the piece worked for me. Recordings, of course, negate that renewal, which is why I prefer live performances. Meanwhile, as we change and evolve, so too does our sense of a piece when we come back to it. The greatest, most lasting works are ones that maintain their fascination through this process, that we feel we never get to the end of.

I think music is good at conveying basic emotions: happy, sad, angry, and so on. It’s not so good at, say, “wistfully regretful.” The more subtle emotional territories are where our individual responses set in. Meanwhile much of the effect of music may not be a matter of happy and sad and so forth, but of visceral appeal. Plenty of pieces I love I can’t put an emotional label on at all; they grab me because they grab me. I sniffle through Bach’s B Minor Mass not because it’s all tragic—some of it overflows with joy–but because I am moved by the beauty, the brilliance, the craft, the depth of expression, the power and glory of the human imagination at its most profound.

A couple more points. The very idea of emotional qualities in music was out of fashion in 20th century academe. The idea of “abstract” or “pure” music ruled the scene. I was once slapped down by a teacher for suggesting that the piano accompaniment of Schubert’s Erlkönig evokes the galloping of a horse. Of course it does. Program pieces illustrating a stated story were tolerated in the classroom, but with a pitying smirk. The celebrated music writer Donald Francis Tovey said that Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony had essentially nothing to do with nature at all; it was an abstraction like every symphony. Sorry, Donald, that’s rubbish. Beethoven geared the melody, harmony, form, orchestral colors of the Pastoral to express its program of a day in the country, with its brook, its birdcalls, its peasant dance, its thunderstorm, its warm sunset. (See my Beethoven bio.)

So of course emotion in music is present and vital. I’ll go beyond that and point out something I don’t know has been said before: every one of the central revolutionary pieces of the last two centuries was based on a story, and found its innovations in the composers’ determination to paint and express that story: Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was originally titled Bonaparte and is about Napoleon from beginning to end; Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun evokes the eponymous time of day, that amorous creature, and Mallarmé’s poem about them; Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps got its singular energy and style from the ballet’s story about a primeval human sacrifice; Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire gained its stunning originality of voice from capturing the fin de siècle weirdness of its lyrics.

I’ll let Schoenberg have the last word regarding the necessity and centrality of expression. In the preface to Pierrot he warned musicians not to add expressive notions of their own but rather to stick to the notes as written. Famously at one moment in the piece where the text says “Pierrot scratches on his viola,” Schoenberg pointedly avoids using a viola even though he has one in the ensemble. In a later article called “This Is My Fault,” Schoenberg points out that younger composers took his preface as a manifesto saying that expressing a text was out, and in ignoring the meaning of the words they wanted to “surpass me radically.” But if music and text are independent, Schoenberg asked, then why not have Wotan, King of the Gods in Wagner’s Ring, stalk across the stage to a boogie-woogie? Of the anti-expression movement he concludes, “What nonsense!”

So music is expressive of emotion, sometimes in more concrete ways and sometimes in less concrete. Some of that response is cultural, some of it innate. After all, even one-celled animals respond to sound. I suspect our response to music starts at the cellular level and travels up to the higher brain functions. And the most important part of our emotional response is particular to ourselves. We can sometimes agree on what a piece expresses, but we’ll each fill in the details differently, and we’ll never fully understand how music moves us. What we feel from music is like what we feel from a sunset. The sunset contains no emotion; it’s a physical phenomenon that has nothing to do with us. Maybe the dinosaurs enjoyed them. In any case the feelings are ours, some of them universal to humans, some individual. Ultimately the source of such responses is a matter of magic and mystery, and so music echoes the magic and mystery of the universe.

 

HEROIC TO WRETCHED, SOBBING TO GIGGLING: SPECIFIC EMOTIONS IN MUSIC

This is a companion piece to the essay above. There I was making larger points about musical expression, mainly that our response to expressive qualities in music is partly personal, partly universal, partly according to the ways our culture has taught us to respond. Here I want to examine some pieces that seem to me to be going after particular emotions. As always when talking about such things, a certain amount of this will be personal. But I maintain that it’s not entirely personal, that definable qualities can be portrayed in music (most manifest when joined with words). As someone who’s highly emotional about music and a composer who is determined to write expressive music, I’m on familiar ground with these matters.

As I also said in the above essay, I think music is good at expressing broad emotional categories, not so good at more subtle ones, which we have to supply for ourselves. To get into specifics I’m going to start here with vocal music, because in that case we can know with relative confidence what the composer intended to express.

I’ll start with a remarkable juxtaposition of qualities in Bach’s B Minor Mass. The central part of any mass setting is a juxtaposition central to the faith: Christ is crucified for our sins and resurrected from the dead. These mass movements are the Crucifixus, always tragic, and the Et resurrexit, always joyful. Here Bach paints the crucifixion with a variety of colors, some traditional and some invented.

His Crucifixus is set over a chromatically descending bass line, which is a Baroque convention for representing sorrow. Meanwhile the bass repeats over and over, which suggests something relentless and inescapable; the steadily repeating rhythmic figures work to the same end. Over the bass, the lines of the chorus are drooping, mostly set low in the voices, and the instrumental parts also lie fairly low, so the texture and color of the music are shadowed. The harmonies over the chromatic bass are dissonant and unsettled. In the voices the opening phrases are scattered, broken. So every aspect of the music—melody, harmony, rhythm, color—is geared to expressing tragedy.

The Crucifixus ends with a falling and fading away, unmistakably representing a descent into the darkness of the grave. From that moment of despair the Et resurrexit erupts with a torrent of joy. Everything about this movement is the converse of the Crucifixus: the rhythm whirling unto delirious, the melodies soaring and dancing and laughing, the colors bright with high strings and winds and ecstatic trumpets. That transformation is one of the most stunning I know in music, and Bach maintains the joyous celebration from beginning to end of the movement.

There’s joy and there’s comedy. For the latter I’ll present three examples. Beethoven is comic more often than he gets credit for. One of his more overt bits of humor is the last movement of the Second Symphony, which begins with a gigantic hiccup—or maybe the cry of a jackass—that turns out actually to be a primary motif of a high-spirited and waggish romp. Stravinsky’s Renard the Fox, from 1916, based on a Russian folktale about a clever fox who gets his comeuppance, begins with an outlandish march; the entry of the voices, imitating the animals in the story, is brilliant and uproarious. From that point the tone oscillates between comedy, parody, and irony.

Brahms is not generally noted for humor in his art, but that’s a bit of a bum rap. One of his comic outings is the finale of the String Quintet in F Major, which is not thigh-slapping stuff but still suffused with wit, especially in a refrain that comes back over and over, a goofy tune scored for high violin doubled by cello octaves below. In his person Brahms was a subtle ironist and also a practical joker, and now and then his music reflects that.

Charles Ives believed there was not enough laughter in the concert hall, and he intended to do something about that. Part of his humor comes from realistic portraits of amateur music-making; as he noted to a copyist, “Bandstuff! They didn’t always play right & together and it was as good either way.” Putnam’s Camp, the middle movement of his Three Places in New England, is an affectionate satire of town bands falling off the beat, playing in the wrong key, and generally losing it on the march.

The late-20th-century master Gyorgy Ligeti has the reputation of a fearsome modernist, but he was in fact a passionate humanist and also one of the funniest composers—though his comedy tended to have an edge. His Adventures is a chamber opera with no words, only inarticulate sounds from shouting to laughing to purring. I had to see it live and acted out to realize how hilarious it is. More to the point is his series of Nonsense Madrigals on poems by Lewis Carroll. Those bits of surreal whimsy have never been better realized. Try “A Long, Sad Tale” for a sample: a collection of bizarre vocal manifestations adding up to a little scene both comical and shivery. His opera Le Grand Macabre is a hyper-pastiche of apocalyptic import. I suggest watching a staged version on YouTube. Also try the hyperbolic Simon Rattle/ Barbara Hannigan version of the excerpts Mysteries of the Macabre, figuratively and literally a scream. There’s a lot of laughter in Ligeti, even if much of it is uneasy.

When it comes to tragic pieces there are inevitably lots of examples in religious music. One of the most powerful I know comes from the relatively obscure Italian Giacomo Carissimi, the final chorus of his oratorio Jephte, from around 1650. The story is of the Biblical king who promises God that if he wins a battle he will sacrifice the first person he sees afterward. These promises usually don’t go well; it turns out to be his beloved daughter Jephte, and this time, unlike with Isaac and Abraham, God doesn’t come to the rescue. The piercingly tragic and beautiful final chorus, Plorate, filii Israel, is a lamentation by her friends. The music is sustained wail of grief, building to a climax on a chain of heartrending harmonies. Chorus singers report having trouble getting through the piece without choking up.

A madrigal is a piece for usually four or five singers, designed mainly to be done by enthusiasts at home. The English madrigalists of the Elizabethan era were expert at minutely portraying every image and shade of emotion in a poem. The Silver Swan by Orlando Gibbons presents a literal swan song, its mournful course ending, “O Death, come close mine eyes! / More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.” Like many mournful pieces, it gets much of its effect from falling vocal lines and poignant dissonances. Also from that era, John Dowland wrote many songs for voice and lute, most of them on his own verses. His signature lute song, one of the great hits of its time, is the exquisite Flowe my teares.” Its lament builds steadily to its devastated last verse: “Hark! you shadows / that in darkness dwell, / learn to contemn light. / Happy, happy they that in hell / feel not the world’s despite.”

Beethoven said that even thinking about the Cavatina in his late String Quartet in Bb Major, Op. 130, brought him to tears. Toward the end, in a section marked “anguished,” the music seems to break into sobs. As in so much late Beethoven, the suffering here is not simple but complex, blending moments of hope, regret, universal human grief.

Among the 20th-century Viennese sometimes called chilly intellectuals, it was Anton Webern who after the death of his mother wrote the devastated Six Pieces for Orchestra. I know of no more naked depiction of anguish than its fourth movement, a funeral cortege that resolves into a mounting roar of percussion punctuated by shattering cries in the brass, ending on a sudden and devastating silence. This is not sorrow; this is agony.

Let’s touch on a couple more qualities. First, heroic. The obvious choice here is the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, which he titled Eroica (originally called Bonaparte, so it is about Napoleon). The first movement is a kind of abstract portrait of a battle or a campaign, searching and unstable, building to grand perorations. The second movement portrays the aftermath of battle–a funeral march. I’d add the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which breaks out in a brassy song of triumph and sustains a festive and heroic tone throughout. (Beethoven appears in this essay more than anybody else partly because I think his work is some of the most emotionally intense and also expressively transparent in music.)

There’s love music everywhere, it’s much of what we sing about, but how about pieces that shade into the erotic? One example is the exquisite slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 In C Major, which for me has always evoked a languid evening of lovemaking. (In the 1960s it became a hit accompanying the lovers in the movie Elvira Madigan.) The most graphic example of sex in music, no doubt, is Wagner’s Prelude and Love Death from Tristan und Isolde. The opera is about a fatal amour fou. The Prelude starts with a series of sighs representing the rising of desire; it builds to an earth-moving climax. (In a letter Wagner compared the opening gestures to the Hindu breath of Brahma that creates the universe—a lovely image of creation as the desire of Unbeing for Being.) In the Love Death, Isolde expires in ecstasy on the body of her lover Tristan, and the music does justice to the image.

A subset of the matter of expression is what are called musical topics. These are pieces evoking a fairly specific image by use of musical gestures the culture has developed for those purposes. The most familiar topic is a march. Marches can be created in all kinds of styles, but certain things will be consistent: it will be in two-beat or four-beat meter (because we have two feet), and it will be in some kind of marchable tempo; the melodies and gestures will be vigorous, the overall style something associated with its culture. (This includes the “Turkish” style used by Beethoven and Mozart, heavy on bass drum and cymbals, which came from Turkish military music. See Mozart’s famous Rondo alla Turca, for piano; the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth also has a Turkish march.) Marches, after all, are used to move troops around and sometimes even accompany them in battle. They will be geared to give people courage and strength, and even when translated into concert music they will still have some of those qualities. In the Classical style of Mozart and Beethoven, most concerto first movements are in a more or less military mode.

All dances amount to a topic of some kind, each with its characteristic rhythms, gestures, forms, and tempos: minuet, englische, waltz, and so on, their rhythm, style, and form geared to the steps of the particular dance. In turn, every dance has its social overtones, from the courtly tradition of the minuet, to the more democratic associations of the 19th-century englische (a contradance in which everybody danced with everybody), to the sexiness and delirium of the waltz (it was the first dance in which couples embraced), to the vigorous two-beat polka, originally a Polish folk dance. Brahms described his Fourth Symphony thus: “Oh, once again I’ve just thrown together a bunch of waltzes and polkas.” He was partly, but not entirely, kidding; the third movement is sort of a polka, and all the movements have dance overtones. Much of Chopin is founded on Polish dances such as the mazurka and polonaise.

Another familiar Western musical topic is the pastoral. This music evokes fields and woods, perhaps inhabited by amorous nymphs and shepherds and such. From Handel’s Pastoral Symphony in Messiah to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, this topic is going to feature a gentle, warm atmosphere, folkish tunes, bagpipey drones, simple harmony and rhythms from gentle to vigorous folk-dances. A sort of subset of the pastoral is “hunt” music, leaping and rhythmical, often with hunting calls in the horns; the finale of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is a hunt piece. Often in the pastoral mode there will be a suggestion of the ancient, imagery of Greece and Rome. Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 above is in a serenade topic, meaning night-music.

Other topics include the passionate and exotic “Gypsy,” aka “Hungarian” style, used by composers from Haydn to Brahms, who wrote a collection of popularistic Hungarian Dances, but also used the style for all his concerto finales. Another late-Classical topic is Sturm und Drang, meaning a highly expressive, intense, bold style in some cases, inward and subjective in other cases. Not all emotional expression is covered in the list of topics, but a lot are. Mozart, to name one, was usually wielding some topic or other in his works. We may no longer recognize them, but many in his time did. A whole piece does not have to stick to a topic—a symphony movement, say, may have marchlike or Sturm und Drang moments en route.

And so it goes. Music expresses particular emotions sometimes with the help of words, sometimes with the help of cultural traditions, sometimes in more mysterious ways having to do with our innate responses to rhythm, tempo, harmony, the colors of sound. Some music is transparently expressive, some not. Ultimately each of our responses is particular to ourselves, and that individuality of response I call one of the most splendid things about music. What I’m encouraging here is not to take my responses as any sort of final word on what any piece “means,” but rather to cultivate your own responses in kind. The first time you hear a work, maybe it’s best to take it in without thought. But as you return to pieces, begin to find your own resonances, your own paths into the work, and watch them evolve as you evolve. As we change and grow, the things we love change and grow with us.

 

THOSE CRAZY ANCIENTS

Who knows why, but in the last year I’ve been reading surveys of ancient civilizations. I’ve got Sumer and Ur and Babylon on the brain. The most fun parts are surviving letters of middle-Eastern kings to their children, written on clay tablets in cuneiform, but otherwise like modern parents’ letters a litany of dissatisfaction. They run something like this: “From the Emperor of the Seven Kingdoms and of the Universe Asur-Nastipal to his younger son: Why have you not written to me? Your older brother writes me every week! Are you lounging in the harem as usual? Listen to your father, my son: last week I defeated the Saurians on the battlefield and drowned the valleys with their blood. What have you done for me lately? At the last new moon your brother attacked the Nautians and piled their heads to the rafters of their palace! O my son, when will you live up to your potential? Those idiot kings Sili-Sin and Rim-Sin are better vassals that you, my own son! Last year I sent you sixteen beautiful virgins! Where is your gratitude? Your brother has been endlessly grateful for his virgins!! I entreat, nay command you to get off your backside and your harem and write to me instantly. You know what happened to your younger brother, of whose memory nothing may be spoken!!!”

All this began with Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra, which is a lovely book and a masterful job of doing a lot with little information. (I’d add the same about Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare, which I just finished.)

My fantasy letter above is not that much of an exaggeration, except that they didn’t have exclamation points in cuneiform. It would not have been out of form for the older son to raise an army and come after dad and kill him with his own hands after a little tete a tete: “And you know those virgins, dad? They were second hand, if you get my drift!” In those days not a lot of thrones turned over without blood. If there were brothers, the throne went to the first to kill off the other brothers. And/or dad, or mom.

Cleopatra if I remember took care of a couple of brothers to secure the throne of Egypt. She was officially married to another brother, which happened a lot. (He probably never touched her.) (Hmmm. She may finally have had him killed too. You lose track.) Some royals married their moms, though that was considered a little over the top, even by the ancients. If you took part in stabbing Julius Caesar on the floor of the Senate, you didn’t necessarily lose your chance at the throne. Marc Antony made the mistake of getting goofy over Cleopatra, which gave an opening to his fellow Triumvirate member Octavian, which doomed both Antony and Cleopatra.

By the way, as best we can tell from her portraits on coins and such, Cleopatra wasn’t actually all that cute, but she had a great personality and fabulous clothes. She knew how to make an impression. Most ancient rulers had two means to get their way: wiles and violence. Cleopatra had three: wiles, violence, and sex. Did she love Marc Antony, or was she just using him–as she had Julius Caesar–to get in good with the Romans? If so, it went a little awry.

GRAND CANYON 2014: I NEVER LOST ANYTHING UNTIL I LOST EVERYTHING

Essentially, in the beginning, it was this: I was 68 and wanted to do this trek before it was too late–the Royal Arch Route, generally agreed to be the hairiest of the regular trails in Grand Canyon. Examined in ordinary grownup terms, it was no place for an aging musician and writer to get himself into. There’s a lot of clambering over large boulders in a streambed and some episodes of, as it is termed, “breathtaking exposure.” “Exposure” meaning the close proximity of drops that, if you fall off, you tend to die. Its side trail, to an exquisite little canyon called Elves’ Chasm, is the scene, the Park Service description helpfully tells us, of “a number of gruesome accidents.”

The Royal Arch Route is also noted for its beauty, the climax being the eponymous and splendid natural arch in the middle of the circuit. It was only “discovered” in 1959, by legendary Canyon explorer Harvey Butchart (Native Americans have presumably known about it for millennia). After the arch there’s a much-dreaded rappel down a 20-foot cliff. I’d been dreaming about the Royal Arch Route for years. Meanwhile in my annual spring Canyon treks I had completed most of the other, easier, traditional trails. This was to be my twelfth Canyon trek.

Those trips were not without incident. Talk to any old hiker, you hear about misadventure. In eleven Canyon treks as nominal leader I’d seen an old friend take a little misstep, trip, and hurtle down a slope that could have killed him—but didn’t, as it happened. On another trek in a heat wave a member of our group fainted in potentially fatal condition from heat sickness. There were some bad hours, but the end she didn’t die either. We’ve encountered various rattlesnakes, experienced the entertainments of severe dehydration, and so on. I knew the risks pretty well. I was also a hiker of 45 years experience, in decent shape for my age, with pretty good knees, and over the months I’d spent hiking in Grand Canyon I and everyone involved had lived to tell the tale.

So I know what the Canyon entails. It isn’t the walking or the long haul up and out, it’s the desert heat and the water and the distances that can get you. We all have our ways of dealing with it. As I tell people, I’m not about strength, I’m about finesse. (First rule of finesse: You can always walk slower.) I know how to calculate the water. Preparing for the Royal Arch I’d done a decent amount of spring training to get ready, more than usual. As I was to be reminded this time, however: when potential disaster looms, finesse only gets you so far.

From the Park Service I got my hike reservation for Norm Bendroth and me the usual five months ahead. Given the thousands of aspirants, that’s what you do. Norm is an old friend and hiking partner, a Congregationalist minister who wears it lightly. He’s strong as a bull. My nickname for Norm: “Trail Animal.” To prepare, I read every Royal Arch trip report I could find online and studied the risks—not so much the actually easy rappel as before that, the boulders and pouroffs in Royal Arch Creek. And of course, let’s not forget the exposure. In reports I’d read about a spot of severe, aka breathtaking exposure just before the rappel. Unseen, that spot had gnawed at my imagination for years.

I was, in short, a little bit afraid of this trail. Which whetted my appetite for doing it. Before it was too late.

In the Royal Arch creekbed I knew we were going to have to scramble over boulders and ledges, pass packs down on a line, maybe wade in water, etc. There is one spot where there’s an impassable pour-off in the creek and your choices are, to the left, what is familiarly called the Ledge of Death, a stretch where you tiptoe sideways on a four-inch foothold over a sixty-foot drop, with not much handhold (as one veteran put it: you’re grabbing an A-cup when you you’d prefer a D-cup). To the right of the pour-off, however, is a crumbling trail with a squeeze-through bit known as the Rabbit Hole—and that route is relatively safe. Between the alternatives of Ledge of Death and Rabbit Hole, most hikers choose the Rabbit Hole. We sure as hell planned to.

Meanwhile, in friend Norm I had a hiking partner who I knew was unflappable and strong and experienced, who could lend a hand if necessary. Brother, was it necessary. Likewise the kindness of strangers. The strangeness of strangers was another matter.

Our intricate comedy of errors that kept threatening to become something far nastier is a sort of mini-saga, with a varied cast and episodes of comedy both light and dark.

We knew about the hour and a half drive on 35 miles of steadily deteriorating dirt roads that are the route from touristy Grand Canyon Village to the remote Royal Arch trailhead. We rented an SUV with good clearance. When we got there the two-foot-deep ruts in the middle of the road got our attention sure enough. You have to hope the road is dry, not muddy, because then you can get hopelessly stuck. For us it was dry and firm, at least. In the bad spots you inch along, trying to keep the tires on the narrow bits between foot-deep ruts. It was one of the damnedest tracks calling itself a road that either of us had ever seen. Actually, in the end, it was kind of fun.

We made it to the trailhead without incident. So there we were, in a place I’d dreamed of for years. Norm locked his cell phone and wallet in the glove compartment and we geared up. As usual I stashed my wallet and single electronic car key in my pack. In that casual act, the saga began.

The first day’s hike down the South Bass and Royal Arch trails was pleasant and as they say uneventful. The prospects of buttes and canyons was glorious as usual, the weather sunny, the trail cheerfully downhill. For the moment temps were some ten degrees cooler than usual in mid-May, in the 80s rather than 90s. As always in the desert, that made a critical difference. After a steep descent of a mile and a half there’s a confluence of trails. We turned west on the Royal Arch Route for a long traverse gradually descending toward the creek. At the trail junction we cached two half-liter bottles of water in case we needed them when we circled back to that spot on the return. Boy howdy, did we need them. Or rather Norm did, because I would not be present at the time.

On the second morning, after clambering over an ungodly half mile of rough talus, we reached the dry upper section of Royal Arch Creek and began another gentle descent on smooth rock, watching for water as we went. Now we were in a tight canyon hike, the beauties more intimate. We knew it would be dry for a while. I’d read that there was reliable water near the arch three miles down, also water in potholes before you get there—but we didn’t know where, and the miles were going to be slow with all the clambering. We also knew that this had been an unusually dry spring, so the potholes might have dried up, or what water was left might be too skanky to consider unless you’re desperate. At that point we had enough water and weren’t planning to be desperate.

Here I’ll note that I have a peculiarity of mind that can serve me well in my capacity as a composer and writer, but not always so well in the rest of my life: I get an idea lodged in my head and that idea can overshadow everything else, such as what is actually in front of my face. You can ask my ex-wives about this. For some reason I was convinced from my reading of trip reports that the Ledge of Death/ Rabbit Hole bypass was a mile or two later, in the middle or at the end of the boulder scrambles in the creek.

That’s what was in my head concerning the Rabbit Hole. As we innocently made our way down the creek we came to an impassable pour-off. After a whatthehell moment Norm spotted a rudimentary path up the slope to the right around the impasse, marked with rock cairns. We forged up, then made our way along a rubbly but decent trail on a steep but only modestly scary slope. Any minute we expected to find a trail back down to the creek. At one point we came to a small opening through which we had to pass our packs and crawl. “Gosh!” I said brightly, “this is a lot like the Rabbit Hole!” Of course, this wasn’t like the Rabbit Hole, it was the Rabbit Hole. This pour-off was not the last obstacle in the creek, but rather the first. That simple concept never entered our minds.

Often a single mistake sets off a train of them. A touch of uncertainty invaded our awareness. Because we didn’t recognize the Rabbit Hole when we were in it, we didn’t look hard enough for the trail down to the creekbed just after it. Instead, we followed what became a splendid false trail, well supplied with false cairns, high above the creek. After another 45 minutes or so, trail and cairns petered out in the middle of nowhere on a crumbling trailless slope. Realizing we were on a goose chase, I looked down and told Norm I thought I could see a spot below where we could get down to the creekbed. Okay, Norm said. He’s an agreeable guy. We made our way down the bouldery cactusy slope and found, naturally, an impassable cliff above the Royal Arch creekbed, where we needed to be.

At that point it was around noon. We were getting tired and running low on water. We rested and ate lunch, which was at least one good idea. I suggested bushwhacking upstream along the cliff to look for a way down into the creek. No, Norm sensibly said. Unpleasant though it may be, we need to clamber back up to the false trail and retrace our steps, because that will reliably return us to where we went wrong. It took us the better part of an hour of miserable scrambling to get back up to the bad trail. After a half hour or so retracing our steps Norm discovered the trail down to the creekbed that we’d missed. By then it was midafternoon.

Our excursion on the false trail had cost us over two hours, much of our energy, and most of our water. Being low on water in the desert is the definition of what you do not need.

We began forging again down Royal Arch Creek and, one after another, dealt with the rock scrambles we’d been anticipating. At one point to go over a fifteen-foot boulder you pass your pack down on a line, slide several feet down on your stomach, and catch a rock with your left foot at the bottom. I passed my pack to Norm, slid several feet down, caught the rock with my left foot, put out my right foot for balance, found air and toppled. My left foot catching in a seam between rocks saved me a five-foot drop onto my head in the creekbed that might have broken my neck—or maybe cleared my mind.

At a couple more spots we had to tie the nylon webbing to our packs and pass them down, or the scramble would have been riskier. This is easy enough. You slide the pack down the incline, your partner secures it, you toss the line down. Meanwhile as the afternoon wore on we were getting steadily more tired and dehydrated. Finally we were running on fumes, numbly putting one foot after another. From dehydration our voices had become a hoarse croak. There kept being no water in the creek. I remember thinking that this would all be kind of fun if we hadn’t gotten delayed on the bad trail and if we weren’t tired and thirsty and anxious.

Were we scared? Not particularly. We knew there was going to be water in the creek sooner or later, and we knew that you didn’t have to be a trained rock climber to get over the boulders. We figured we could keep going after dark if we had to. (We didn’t know yet that we had only one functional headlamp—Norm, bless his heart, hadn’t checked his batteries before he left and they were nearly dead.) Meanwhile—this was the luck of that day—, temps remained in the mid-80s. So as we forged down the creek we were dry but not dangerously dehydrated, beat but not really bonked. This being a creek bed, there were occasional patches of trees and close walls and shade.

After we’d plodded and scrambled for an hour or so, as we were searching for the route for yet another downclimb, Norm called out that he saw water in a pothole below us. Gallons of water! he cried. It took some dicey scrambling to get down; we passed packs and slid down a rock face on our butts, clutching my nylon webbing for safety. When we got there the pothole proved to be a gloriously skanky affair, the water dark brown, tadpoles in residence, also a couple of frogs and an enormous white scorpion. At this point it all looked wonderful. There was flat rock beside it where we could sleep.

We began filtering the water with our two hand pumps. The tadpoles and the scorpion didn’t seem to mind. (We thought the scorpion was dead, but it wasn’t—it was gone next morning.) Norm’s filter was not made for things like this; the water came out of it brownish, but at least didn’t taste too disgusting. I had a ceramic filter that was slow and had to be cleaned constantly, but it gave us fresh-looking water and would not clog with grit as Norm’s was inevitably going to. As dusk came on we discovered that Norm’s flashlight was nearly dead.

After pumping water for the better part of an hour, we made dinner on my camp stove and got ready for sleep, laying out our sleeping pads and bags on the rock. We slept very well.

Early next morning as we were eating breakfast we heard yelling, somebody asking if there was water. We yelled back, yes, there’s a pothole. In a minute a bearded young guy appeared from around the corner. He was so dehydrated that his voice, like ours the day before, was a frazzled croak. Can I use your filter? he said. Sure.

For the next half hour he pumped water from the skanky hole and talked. Let’s call him Jake. “My girlfriend wants to kill me,” Jake said. He did variations on that for quite a while. She was waiting in their tent a half hour above us. He’d brought her down the creek on the notorious Point Huitzil route, they had ended up clambering over scarily exposed rocks by headlamp and running out of water. She had half a liter of Gatorade left but wouldn’t share it with him. She’d been screaming abuse at Jake pretty much continually since yesterday: idiot, incompetent asshole, and so on. In the course of their relationship over the past months, he told us, they had hiked many miles, she had taught him rock climbing. But this looked like the end. He didn’t know if she would be waiting for him when he went back up. Finally, with several liters of water he’d filtered with our pump, he thanked us and climbed up and away. We figured we’d never see him again.

At least in the ensuing herd of snafus we didn’t get sick from the water. Norm and I packed up and continued clambering down the creek. Of course, in a half hour or so we came to clear flowing water. Just before it there was a bit of scary ledge, inching along sideways with a short but nasty fall underneath. I concluded in the middle of inching that this was the Ledge of Death. I was quite wrong. It was a run-of-the-mill scary ledge. Later I dubbed it the Little Ledge of Near-Death. It was only next day that I put one and one together and realized we had been through the Rabbit Hole early on.

After a rest at a sweet little pool we were forging blithely on when I glanced up and realized, in disbelief, that we were under the Royal Arch. The trail down to it is a spur off the main trail, but we had missed the turnoff out of the creek and blundered onto our destination for the day. But this was great news, after all! We dropped our packs and prepared to relax for the afternoon and night.

To our surprise, in early afternoon Jake and his girlfriend arrived. We’ll call her Elena. They were semi-reconciled, at least speaking. She still intended to kill him, she told me. What are you going to do it with, I asked politely, your hiking poles? No, a rock, she said. But they seemed to be sort of getting along. We chatted pleasantly. She said she had just completed something like a thousand-mile solo hike on the Pacific coast. Her next ambition was to spend some four years on a hike from South America to, as I remember, Alaska. She had asked Jake to join her on this historic trek. He was skeptical, and so forth and so on. All this amounted to clues of coming weirdness, but we didn’t notice. She told me about her hiking website. (On my return home I couldn’t find such a website.)

The rest of the day was uneventful in the best way: calm and lovely. The Royal Arch is a marvelous, many-layered, stately piece of limestone. I teared up at the first sight, having dreamed of this place for so many years. I spend hours lying on the rocks contemplating the arch’s intricate folds, the blocks of stone that had flaked off over the eons. I thought about the ten oceans that had covered this area, advancing and retreating, the remains of the oceans’ shellfish forming the limestone I was looking at. Here were millions of years laid open before our eyes. Jake and Elena clambered up to the top of the arch, but we were too lazy to try it. We all had a good night’s sleep.

So far the hike had involved its unpleasant bits, but was otherwise going well enough, if anything better than I’d expected. So far.

Next morning Jake and Elena set out from the arch ahead of us, which turned out to be fortunate. Norm and I got out about 7 AM and discovered that in climbing back to the main trail we had to clamber up some of the obstacles we’d clambered down the day before and hoped to have seen the last of. But we were eager to get to the rappel and down to the river, which appeared to be the last troublesome part of the hike. The exposure I’d read about above the rappel was never far from my mind.

As we forged upward we heard Jake and Elena shouting. We looked up to find them on the slope above us, on the trail going toward the rappel and the river. They told us where the turn was out of the creek, which we’d all missed on the way down and they’d missed again on the way up, so they’d had to double back. This saved us some gnarly uncertainty, because we might also have kept clambering up past the turnoff.

With their help we found the turn out of the creek, trekked up the steep climb (my uphill pace stately as always), then commenced a mostly gentle trek flat and downhill toward the rappel, though some of it inches from a cliff. The Park Service trail description had a “long hour” to the rappel. It was closer to two hours. Just before the rappel lay the bit of exposure I’d been dreading for years. I had gotten the impression that it was a combination of rubbly loose rock—called scree–and a cliff, which is my least favorite situation. In my hiking career I’ve had a couple of potentially final encounters with scree on a slope near a cliff. Once, in the Alps, I was flat on my stomach trying to hold on to a little rock and inching toward an abyss when two men appeared to save me. I never forget that moment.

And now, dear reader, comes the little irony of our story. When we got to that bit of exposure I’d been dreading for years, I immediately realized it was not that bad. It was a ten-foot downclimb that was, yes, a few steep feet from a cliff at the bottom, but the handholds were excellent—spiky volcanic rock that might bloody your fingers, but was the opposite of slippery. Norm went right down with his pack on. I elected to tie webbing to my pack, as we’d done several times before, kick it over the edge for Norm to secure, then make the easy clamber down.

Communication, communication, communication. That was the crux of the issue here. I tied the nylon webbing to my pack, as I’d done before. I kicked it over the edge, as I’d done before. I lowered it down toward Norm as usual. Finally I couldn’t see my pack, but below me I saw Norm lean over to secure it. He said something vague that I interpreted to mean I’ve got it. I neglected to say four easy words: Have you got it? Instead, as I’d done several times before on the trip, I casually tossed the webbing down. I remember thinking that we were getting to be old hands at this pack-passing stuff.

Looking over the ledge I saw my pack tumbling downward end over end, trailing the webbing. I screamed Grab it! Norm couldn’t grab it. It had never been firmly in his hands. In silence we watched the pack bounce down six feet and take wing over the edge of the cliff. It sounded like this: crunch, crunch, a second of silence, then from below whump, another second, whump again. Silence.

We stood for a moment in shock. My pack was gone. My whole entire mammyjamming pack. If Norm had hurled himself to grab it, he would have gone over the cliff after it. The aforementioned, bitter irony: the exposure above the rappel that I’d been dreading for years turned out to be no problem for my person, but a fatal problem for my gear. In forty-five years of backpacking I’d never lost anything. Now I’d lost everything.

One at a time, the implications began to crowd in. Too many implications to take in at once, but starting with the simple part: four days into a desert wilderness with at least two more days to get out, we had lost half our food, half our canteens, our only camp stove, all my sleeping gear and most of my clothes, our only functional headlamp and only reliable water filter, and assorted other stuff. Including, come to think of it, my wallet. Oh, and sweet Jesus, the electronic car key. That meant that when we finally managed to struggle up to the rim at the end of the hike, the road to civilization was 35 miles of baking, waterless, rutted, sparsely traveled dirt.

The fun was done. Now the game was survival. We didn’t speak what we both knew: it was a hell of a fix, the fix we were in. Not enough food, not enough canteens, no stove so no way to rehydrate most of the food we did have, nothing for me to sleep on or under, no flashlight, no water filter, no first-aid kit, and so on and so forth. There were distinct possibilities for danger and still better possibilities for wretchedness, as in shivering all night, staggering along for miles without water sort of wretchedness. As in falling off a ledge in the dark, drinking unfiltered river water, and so forth and so on.

But, OK! All right! We’re resourceful! We’re tough old buzzards!! We ourselves didn’t go over the cliff!!! Examining the slope below us, I saw that maybe we could make our way to the bottom of the cliff and find my pack. It would likely be exploded from the fall, but also might not. In any case, we could salvage important stuff: canteens, food, stove, sleeping gear, flashlight, day pack, wallet and car key. It hadn’t sounded like the pack fell that far, maybe less than a hundred feet. I climbed down to join Norm and we took another look at the slope beneath us. The first thing we saw was my foam sleeping pad sitting on a ledge. That provided a bubble of hope.

First we had to get down the rappel, often dubbed “infamous.” We weren’t sweating it. There were ropes left in place there and we had a climbing harness that was, thank the hiking deities, in Norm’s pack. Both of us had rappelled before, though to be sure not in decades. When we got to the rappel it took us ten minutes of fumbling to figure out how to rig the harness, more time to get the rope fixed right in the carabineer. But soon enough we were both down. Something else that could otherwise have been fun. From above the rappel I’d tossed our hiking sticks down as usual, and that had been another bad idea: Norm’s ended up bouncing off the trail to the edge of a cliff, one of mine was stuck in a tree on a slope beside the cliff. We got all the sticks back, but one of mine had lost its lower segment and was ten inches short. I poled with a limp from then on. This was the first intimation that the gods of snafu were not done with us.

Once down the rappel we set out offtrail to find the cliff and my pack, bushwhacking down another rough bouldery slope. After ten minutes of scrambling I yelled to Norm: I see it! A bit of blue in the grass under a tree! My pack being blue. We clattered down to the spot and found it was the blue top of a canteen. We assumed it was one of mine since it was the same brand, and we also assumed that it lay in the debris field of my pack. But it wasn’t my canteen or my debris field. What we’d found was a graveyard of canteens that over years had fallen from the same cliff my pack had gone over.

In an hour of searching all over, we didn’t find my pack. Just more canteens. Finally, having as far as we could tell covered the whole slope—a sliding, stumbling misery, with cactus as seasoning—we gave up. We gathered three canteens to take with us because we knew we were going to need them. In the desert, water is life and canteens hold the water. We should have picked up more canteens. We were going to be on the Colorado River that night, but the following night was potentially a dry camp, and 24 hours of safe hiking in desert heat requires about seven liters a person. Norm had only his own canteens, totaling seven liters. We’d added three more from under the cliff, but that wasn’t enough. We still had his water filter, but I knew it would clog up before long, and it did. We’d be drinking straight from the Colorado.

The trek down to the river was depressing but uneventful. We walked in stunned silence. As we reached the sandy shore we saw Jake and Elena standing looking up toward us. When we got to them they were laughing with relief. They’d gotten worried when we didn’t appear and were about to climb back up the steep slope to look for us. Um, it’s not really good news, we said.

When they heard about my pack Jake and Elena were instantly sympathetic. They went into rescue mode. They were both experienced hikers and, they told us, trained EMTs. They began giving us what turned out to be critical help and advice. Elena lent us her water filter, which meant that for the time being we didn’t have to drink straight from the river. Flag some rafters down, they said, they’ll probably give you stuff. On cue a flock of rafts appeared. We flagged them down. The leader was exceedingly helpful. From them we got two canteens full of ice water, a rudimentary day pack, some power bars and the like, including a bag of goldfish crackers, and a fleece blanket. In the next days each of those items made our lives, mostly my life, significantly less miserable. We were overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.

Jake had a GPS and allied gadget with which he could send short emails. He emailed his father, who got to work looking for help. He emailed the park rangers asking for a ride for us from the trailhead two days hence. He emailed Norm’s wife telling her to call the rangers. (Norm’s wife had no idea what rangers were meant, hadn’t read the trip details Norm left, and freaked. You don’t want to get a message from unidentified “rangers” mentioning an undefined “problem.” She began planning Norm’s funeral.) The emails were a hassle because communication with the satellite was sketchy. For an hour Jake walked back and forth along the beach holding his gadget in the air, looking for a connection.

Jake and Elena insisted on heading up and looking for my pack. Don’t do it, we said. It’s not your problem, you won’t find it anyway. Stick to your own plans, go out to beautiful Elves Chasm, spend the afternoon dipping in the spring there, we’ll be fine. They insisted. They set out, and after an hour returned with of course no pack. It’s not too late for Elves Chasm! we said, but they didn’t feel like it. We drifted toward dusk chatting awkwardly, Jake trudging around trying to get a satellite connection, me dreading the prospect of trying to sleep in dirt with only a fleece blanket over me when the temps by dawn would be in the 50s at best. At least here on the beach I’d be bedding on sand.

As the hours went on we noticed an evolution in Jake and Elena’s attitude, from concern about us back to their own concerns: Do we try to finish our hike as intended (they were already behind their permit itinerary when they met us) or bag it, stay with Norm and Jan, help them out, give them a ride back to civilization at the rim?

But after all, their not going overboard with us was only proper, Norm and I thought. We’re not in serious danger at the moment, and with the help we’d already received—above all the rafters’ daypack, canteens, and blanket— it looked like we had a decent chance of getting to the rim in two days without too much danger, though it was likely to be a hot, thirsty, unpleasant business. And of course, getting to the rim wasn’t to get home but only to a locked car and a long dry road. But we didn’t want to be a burden to Jake and Elena, and they’d given us important help already. The hope was that a ranger would meet us at the rim, after we informed them via Jake’s email when we’d be out. But that was no sure thing.

From that guardedly hopeful point the situation drifted steadily downhill.

For the moment, at least, at the river we had all the water we wanted, and their pump to filter it. Our next night’s campsite in Copper Canyon nine miles away, though, was uncertain as to water and a subject of concern under the circumstances—for them as well as for us, because they were planning to camp there too. Copper Canyon may or may not have water, and you have to descend off the trail to find it. The sure thing was to keep going past Copper Canyon and down to the river—but that was a strenuous four miles further, making a 13-mile day. And the temps for tomorrow we knew were going to be back up to normal, meaning in the 90s and getting hotter as you descend. In those temps we all knew the drill: you start walking at dawn, hole up in the shade around 10AM and wait out the heat until 4PM. High temperatures suck water and energy out of you and mess with your judgment, with potentially fatal consequences.

At dusk I addressed the problem of how to bed down under the stars in beach sand with as little misery as possible. I didn’t expect the results to be comfortable enough to actually get any sleep. Even on my usual plush sleeping gear—two pads, an inflatable and a foam, plus a down bag—I usually sleep fitfully. As dusk faded I decided I needed to dig a butt-sized trench in the sand, test it out and refine it, then scrape out a slope for my back. It turned out to work pretty well, actually verged on comfy. And I had the marvelous fleece blanket from the rafters to put over me, though I knew that by the middle of the night it wouldn’t be enough. In the Canyon you go to sleep in high temps, then by morning it can be forty degrees cooler. I also knew from experience that an overnight shivering on the ground is a uniquely disagreeable experience. I went to sleep with nothing over me, woke up in a couple of hours and pulled the fleece blanket over me, woke up two hours after that shivering.

I waked Norm and begged clothes. (He had his sleeping bag and inflatable pad, though the latter was flat, having sprung a leak. As usual he was sleeping fine.) From him I got a fleece sweater and a heavy t-shirt and his ground cloth, all of which I put on sequentially over the rest of the night. By dawn it was his skimpy ground cloth over everything that, barely, kept me from the shakes.

Our breakfasts having gone over the cliff, next morning we had half a freeze-dried dinner, hot water to rehydrate provided by Jake’s stove. It turned out to be our last more or less full meal in two days. By this point Jake and Elena had decided not to hike to the rim with us, which we all knew was going to cause us problems if no ranger turned up. But that, again, was not their problem. Meanwhile they were beginning to get a bit prickly in general, as much with each other as with us.

But they were expecting to meet us at the next campsite in Copper Canyon, the one with the dicey water down from the trail, at the old Bass Camp. Previously I’d been given email directions by an experienced Canyon hiker about how to get down to that one-time miner’s camp in Copper Canyon, where usually there was water to be found. But there might not be any water now, because of the dry weather. Moreover, my advisor’s detailed directions on how to spot the camp, including a photo, had gone over the cliff, etc., etc.

In my field of classical music, there’s a device called counterpoint, in which the whole of the music is made up of intertwined melodies. This kind of music is called contrapuntal. From this point, our problems became a contrapuntal web of strangeness and incipient calamity.

We got onto the trail along the river before Elena and Jake. Given that Norm was manifestly stronger, we agreed that as we climbed away from the river I’d wear the daypack the rafters gave us, holding all our canteens, then on the flat I’d take over Norm’s hefty pack. We clambered up flesh-ripping volcanic boulders for an hour or so before we reached the flat and changed packs. It was early morning and we were mostly in shade, so I stuffed my hat in my pocket. At Garnet Canyon midway it’s reported to be hard to find the trail out, and indeed it took us a half hour of poking around to locate it. There were a couple of spots where you had to haul yourself up to a ledge with teetering rocks for a foothold.

After another couple of hours we came to a bit of shade to rest and have some gorp and a cautious amount of water. It was there that I discovered my hat had fallen out of my pocket. Being in Grand Canyon in the heat without a hat is not a good thing, not good at all. I leaned back on a rock and added it to the bad-news list. Norm had a bandana I could use, better than nothing but barely. About a half hour later who should arrive but Elena and Jake, who with a flourish produced my hat. He said they’d found it hanging on a bush beside the trail. The bush had probably jerked it out of my pocket. But after all this was good luck! Maybe our fortunes had changed!! (They hadn’t.)

We hung for a while. Elena and Jake seemed lovey-dovey. I saw her writing in his journal: “I [heart sign] you Jake.” Awwww, I thought. They left before us, heading for Copper Canyon. I gave them the best directions down to water there I could remember. We set out a bit later, then after a while found them in the shade again, looking bushed. It struck me that Norm and I seemed to be having less trouble with the heat than they were. We kept going and before long they passed us again.

By about 5PM, after nine miles of hot and heavy hiking, we arrived at Copper Canyon. We picked our way along the west side of the canyon, looking down anxiously for Bass Camp and water. No sign of it. Where the trail crossed the dry creekbed we found Elena and Jake sitting slumped and unhappy. They hadn’t found the way to Bass Camp either. But Jake had clambered down some ledges below and found skanky water in potholes. We needed that water, badly. And Jake had one piece of fabulous news: the rangers had emailed him and said they’d meet us at the rim at 7 PM tomorrow. We had a ride to civilization! Where we could attack the problem of retrieving the car. But 7 PM seemed plenty of time to hike out tomorrow. Plenty of time!! Plenty of time… But in the morning we had to confirm the rendezvous by email with Jake’s GPS gadget, or the rangers might not show up.

Norm was tired but he was still the stronger of the two of us, so he agreed to go down with Jake and fill up the canteens. Norm’s water filter was clogged and useless, but Jake had Elena’s filter and some nifty water treatment drops that would not remove the skank but at least purify it. With a packful of canteens they headed down.

Elena and I sat on the rock, dusk approaching. As we waited we chatted awkwardly. She said her flashlight was going dead and she didn’t have any spare batteries. (She’s an experienced hiker. Experienced hikers pack spare batteries.) That meant that the only surviving flashlight among the four of us was Jake’s, which he’d taken with him. As dusk arrived Elena’s chat got darker. I’ve had it with Jake, she said. But this afternoon you’d written I heart you! I reminded her. No I didn’t, she said. Anyway, it’s over. As dark came on the mood descended to deep gloom.

Finally it was some two hours since Norm and Jake had headed down. I was peering into the darkness with increasing concern. Finally I said to Elena, They could be in trouble. You’ve got a little flashlight power left, you need to go down and… I’m not going, Elena said. But they could be… I’m not going, she said.

A while more and I saw a pinpoint of light below. Jake and Norm didn’t arrive back for another half hour. They had been hauling water up tricky ledges and they were both exhausted. But they’d filled the canteens. Most of the water was raw and disgusting. Jake said Elena’s filter had clogged after a couple of liters (she had told us it never clogged), and the rest of the twelve liters or so was unfiltered skank.

At this point Elena was more or less hissing and spitting at Jake. He stayed glumly quiet, taking an occasional toot from a bottle of whiskey. He’d shared it before, but not now. Norm and I took stock. We had enough water to get up to the rim, barely—about nine liters though only one filtered, and we’d cached another liter partway up. We could use Jake’s purification drops on the unfiltered gunk. All the food we had left was a freezedried dinner for one, which had to be rehydrated with hot water from Jake’s stove. The four of us were down to one flashlight, Jake’s. Feeling our way in the dark, Norm and I unloaded our stuff across a boulder from them.

From that point things among us became, oh, let’s call it excruciating. Elena was calling Jake every name in the book. He was quietly hostile. In whispers, Norm told me that as they gathered water Jake had told him Elena has a bipolar condition that gives her wild swings of mood and affection. Every day is up and down, adore him and hate him. He loved her and wanted it to work, but she was a rollercoaster. As the evening went on Elena was hating on Jake noisily. As she cursed at him we had to ask, “Um, can we use your stove? And your flashlight for a few minutes?” Without getting actually insulting, Jake was putting out vibes that he had his own problems at this point and ours were no longer relevant. We didn’t press it. We already owed both of them a lot in terms of advice and help.

Then Jake told us he had dropped his GPS somewhere. He was fairly sure it was next to the water pockets down below, but anyway he didn’t have it. We weren’t as certain as he was. And without his GPS there was no email, so no way to confirm our arrival date to the rangers, thus we might have no ride for the 35 miles of desert road.

Then it transpired that Jake had also lost the single other thing we needed: his water purification kit. It was surely lying on the ground somewhere in camp, but again, that was no dependable thing, and we couldn’t waste our one functional flashlight looking for it . Norm and I had the one liter of good water Jake had pumped for us before the filter clogged. The rest of what we had was yellow water with brown crud in it that looked like some distilled essence of disease. Jake noted that drinking bad water usually takes a couple of days to make you sick, so maybe we’d have time to get to the rim before we started wanting to die. We were not reassured.

What in general Norm and I felt at this point was intensely apprehensive. But under the circumstances we stopped begging Jake and Elena for flashlight, stove, water, anything, and left them to their devices. Elena’s affections for Jake had gone over an emotional cliff. We climbed a boulder in the dark and tried to find our sleeping stuff and the bottle of good water among a welter of gear lying on the ground. Finally in desperation I started lighting matches, one at a time, holding each one down to our equipment until it burned my fingers, then lighting another. We couldn’t find the water bottle, couldn’t find Norm’s sleeping pad. That went on until the match striker was worn out. This is it. I thought. This is the pits. But it wasn’t the pits yet, not at all.

We found what stuff we could find. I scraped out a hole in the dirt for my backside, made a mound of dirt for a pillow, and we settled down for the night. Jake had told us they were going to sleep late next morning, but Norm and I needed to leave early. Generously, Jake said to wake him up and maybe in the daylight he could find his water purification kit. We tried to sleep. That was hard, because at that point the two things we most essentially needed, clean water and a ride from the rim, were both in doubt. Meanwhile for much of the night in their tent just above us Elena was weeping and wailing, and I don’t mean metaphorically.

Dawn. We pulled ourselves upright and packed our gear, such as it was. It was about seven miles to the rim, the last couple steeply uphill, but the trail was said to be good. Norm would take his pack, I’d haul the daypack with all the water, but my load was still far lighter than Norm’s. He didn’t complain about that or anything else.

We needed to wake up Jake and hope he could find his water treatment. Norm took care of that delicate business. Meanwhile I headed out to take a leak, and got lost. For the first time on a hike in my life, sweating, floundering-around lost.

My best guess is that because I’d never seen the area clearly in daylight, I didn’t have any points of orientation. Anyway, somehow I wandered away, couldn’t find the campsite or even the creek bed, and in classic fashion my increasingly anxious efforts to get back to camp only got me more lost. It’s crazy for someone who hasn’t been in that situation, but as I well knew, in the desert you can easily die this way, going out to have a piddle and becoming coyote fodder. Sometimes they don’t find the bones for years. Finally I had to do what I didn’t want to, scream for help. Besides the embarrassment, I did not want to wake up Elena and set off another round of tsuris. After a bit I heard Jake yelling back, remarkably far below me. Sheepishly I stumbled back to camp.

Jake had found his water treatment drops. He looked drained and distracted. He couldn’t believe I’d wandered off. I couldn’t either. I heaved a few sighs and sat down with the drops to treat our nine liters of water. On the first day on the way down, near where we cached water, we’d passed plastic jugs with some two gallons of water lying beside the trail on the Esplanade. We’d see that water again on the way up, but I considered it to be cached by somebody and therefore forbidden unless we were in life-threatening trouble. Anyway, in terms of water we’d be OK more or less. It was imperative to get up to the rim by 7PM because that was what we told Jake to tell the rangers—if, of course, he managed to find his lost GPS and email them to confirm we’d be there. With after all no choice, we presumed he’d succeed. And by the way, since we had no flashlight it was also imperative to get to the rim before dark, because there were ledges and other iffy bits on the trail. We’d gotten offtrack a couple of times on the way down, in full daylight. Even in summer it gets dark in the Canyon early, by about 7:30.

I started treating the skanky water in our canteens with Jake’s treatment as I’d remembered him doing with their water. I put in the two sets of seven drops from two little bottles, then waited fifteen minutes. After a half hour I thought to read the instructions, which told me I’d been doing it wrong: you mix drops from each little bottle in a cap provided, wait fifteen minutes, then pour it in the canteen. I started over again. To treat our water took some hour and a half, during which the temperature climbed steadily. We got going some two hours later than we’d planned.

The hike over to the meeting point of the Royal Arch and South Bass trails took some three hours. When we got to the South Bass, our way up to the rim, it was after 10 AM and over ninety degrees. We did what you’re supposed to do, hunkered down in the shade until 4 PM, when the temps usually start dropping and the sun is less fierce. It’s a blank existence, waiting out the sun. Usually it’s too hot to read or to think much. If you’re lucky you enjoy the landscape, watch the clouds. You try to doze, though you’re steadily having to move as your shade is invaded by the sun. As 4PM approached we filtered our water through Norm’s bandanna to remove the worst of the gunk.

Now it was 4 PM and we had some three hours to climb about 3 miles and some 2500 feet up to the rim to meet the ranger—if Jake had been able to email the rangers and one was there, which was anything but certain. We preferred not to think about that. We headed up the South Bass and fell into our usual uphill pattern: Norm being significantly fitter, lighter, and younger, he’d get ahead then stop and wait for me. So it went for an hour. About 5PM we met for another rest stop, then he headed up. He was still carrying his heavy pack. I was schlepping our steadily decreasing water supply in the daypack the rafters gave me.

Before long, hauling myself upward, I took stock and came to a depressing conclusion. My legs were doing all right, but my wind was lousy. I hadn’t really done enough aerobic training for the trip, and unlike other hikes my wind had not gotten better as I went. Through the previous winter I’d had a nagging bronchitis that kept me from exercising and generally afflicted my lungs. I suspect that had something to do with my wind in the Canyon. In any case, as I slogged upward it came to me that there was no way I was going to make it to the rim by 7 PM. After that, meanwhile, it was going to be dark and we had no flashlight, and the upper South Bass was too rough a trail to flounder around on in the dark.

I started shouting for Norm, who had forged ahead. He heard me, barely, and waited. Another few minutes and he would have been out of earshot. I caught up with him in what proved a rare patch of tree shade on the trail. I’m not going to make it in time, I said. You’re much faster than I am. You have to go up alone and meet the ranger. I’ll stay here and wait for a ranger to come and get me in the morning. (The possibility that there might be no ranger to meet him at the rim tonight had vanished from our calculations.)

At this point most hiking partners would have flipped. They would have called me a jerk, a quitter, an all-around so-and-so who’s putting it all on them and by the way had been responsible for losing my fucking pack. In fact at that point I felt like a jerk, a quitter, a wimp, an asshole. I knew I could make it to the rim, but there was no way I would make it before dark or anywhere close to the rendezvous time, and I’d run out of water hours before I got there. Meaning in any case I’d have to bed down on the trail somewhere, and I’d have a thirsty and wretched night of it. In the end, given what we knew at the time, whatever my sense of failure, at that point I was right about what needed to be done.

Norm vented none of those accusations. All right, he said, and that was that. We divided our stuff. He left me a liter and a half of water—enough, barely, if I stayed in the shade and didn’t hike—, a whistle, all his spare clothes, a bag of Goldfish and some granola Jake had given us (we’d had practically nothing to eat since splitting a half dinner the night before). I had my fleece blanket and a pile of dirt for a pillow. We shook hands. “God be with you,” I said. “And with you,” said Rev. Norm. And he headed up out of sight.

I was alone, eventually probably miles from anybody. Was I scared now? No, though a little apprehension was in order. I felt irrationally confident that a ranger would come to extract me in the morning. Was I bored in the next five hours before I could go to sleep? Not particularly. I was in a lovely glade, one of the few shady spots like that on the South Bass Trail. I sat on a rock for a while and looked down the creek canyon to the buttes in the distance. The word grandeur doesn’t begin to encompass it. I thought about life and love and music and books and eternity. Grand Canyon has taught me the joys of doing nothing for hours but looking and thinking, also not thinking but simply being.

What I needed not to think about was water. I paced myself to a couple of small sips from the canteen every hour. I tried to eat some goldfish and granola, but I was so dehydrated that I didn’t have enough saliva to get it down. The food ended up an obnoxious grainy crust in my mouth that lingered for hours. As dusk came on I took my time digging a perfect bed hole and shaping a pillow in the middle of the trail. This grubby expedient was starting to feel almost reassuring. Before I turned in I took a modest leak—reassuring since it meant I wasn’t completely dehydrated–, took an also modest sip of water—I was down to under a liter—and drifted off.

In the morning I got up to take another small reassuring leak and a sip of my remaining water. I luxuriated in my dirt bed for a while, trying not to count the minutes waiting for the ranger, trying not to think about water. Finally I was upright, sitting on my rock looking down the valley, enjoying the shade of the grove. I could have and as it turned out should have started hiking up in the cool of the morning. But I figured I’d run out of water and…anyway, I didn’t.

About 9:30AM, with a surge of excitement, I heard voices. I stood up, trying to look game and presentable. Around the corner came a couple. They stopped, smiling a bit uneasily for some reason, and said, “You must be the guy. We’ve got something for you.” They weren’t rangers, then, but they had something for me! They produced a half liter of Gatorade and a granola bar. The Gatorade was even a little cool! I forbade myself from guzzling it. They said rangers had asked them to give me the stuff, and they’d probably be down soon to get me. As we chatted I noticed they were still looking at me a bit sideways. I didn’t know why until that night.

They headed downtrail toward their camp at the river. I settled in confidently to wait, finished the last of the Gatorade before it lost its cool. I waited, trying not to look at my watch every other minute, trying without entire success to keep to my once-an-hour sipping regime. By 11AM there was less than a half liter left in my canteen. I waited. Waited waited waited waited.

By 1:30 PM I had a quarter liter of water left and had completely run out of thoughts. With nothing better to do, I started blowing distress signals with the whistle: tweet tweet tweet, wait ten minutes, do it again. I had been at this endeavor for about forty minutes when far up the valley I heard something that might have been somebody shouting my name. That, or a bird. I jumped up and screamed back. Another ambiguous sound, but it definitely seemed to be in answer to me. I chose to believe it was the ranger.

I had been imagining my ranger based on the ones I’d met over the years. It was going to be a bearded, burly guy in his forties. In his pack he’d be carrying a gallon or so of cool water and plenty of food for me. I entertained myself with these fantasies while I stood shuffling around in the middle of the trail. Ten minutes, twenty. A rustle from above. My ranger appeared around the corner.

It was a willowy, attractive young woman wearing a ranger uniform and hauling an enormous pack. She smiled helpfully, saying, “Hi! You’re Jan, right? I’m Kelly. How are you doing? You’re a lot further down than I thought.” As she asked the relevant questions I could see her professionally sizing me up. She was a little amused, I didn’t know why until that night. She called in on the radio and told them she’d found me.

Before long I realized that Kelly was not too impressed with me. I knew why. A good deal of the people she dealt with in rescues could not, like me, walk and talk. And if I could do those things, why was I needing her? Sure, I had very little water left, but it’s not like I was dying of dehydration. I’d have a couple of days before it came to that. And Kelly told me something I hadn’t realized: the gallons of water sitting on the Esplanade trail crossing were up for grabs, in fact may have been left for hikers by a ranger. Meaning: water left visibly on the trail is not assumed to be cached, so you take what you need.

Kelly also told me something that shrank my innards a bit, though actually I’d known it but neglected to think about it: Grand Canyon rescue resources are limited and each case is rated as to seriousness. Broken legs, heart attacks, falls off cliffs, severe dehydration, and various other calamities have priority over the likes of me. And those things happen all the time. So there had been no guarantee a ranger would have come for me today, tomorrow, anytime. Kelly came today because she was free and volunteered, not because she was assigned. She noted that she was getting overtime for the gig. I felt happy about that, at least. I did not dwell on the possibility that somebody might have needed her services worse than I did.

If I’d known all this, mainly about the water available on the trail, I would have been motivated to keep going to the Esplanade the day before. With that water I could have gotten to the rim well before today noon, around the time Kelly arrived at the trailhead.

Ah, well. Kelly was not impressed with me. I wasn’t either. But she was entirely professional, in a reassuringly chatty way. She handed me a half liter bottle of water and said to try not to drink too much, she didn’t have a lot on her. So much for my fantasy of a ranger lugging gallons. And there was a granola bar. As she stuffed my maimed hiking sticks in her pack and gave me two extras she had brought (!!), she told me that she was 22 and had been doing rescue work since she was 14. I was supposed to be reassured. I was.

We headed up, Kelly following me so I’d set the pace. We were headed for a bit of shade under a rock shelf she’d noticed, to wait out the heat. As we walked she noted breezily that if I broke down she would leave me by the trail to die. I understood this to be a joke. But I understood that I was expected not to crap out. Actually I felt reasonably strong, all things considered, and there were a lot of things to consider, having to do with less than ideal strength, lack of food, lousy wind, not enough water, age, and so forth and so on. But I was walking all right—better than she expected, Kelly told me. I clutched her praise.

We reached the shade under a ceiling of rock and sat down for two hours, filling the time with talk. Norm had gotten out the night before, she said , and was installed in a motel room waiting for me. I told her I am a musician. She told me about her boyfriend, about her trip to Ireland, about being first-chair French horn in her high school band. She hoped soon to get a job doing rescue with the Arizona Highway Patrol. All entirely cozy. Finally she announced that we could be quiet for a while, and that was fine too.

About 4PM we got going and I trudged up the trail in fairly decent form, considering. The trail was ledgy in places and that confirmed that I would not have wanted to be doing it in the dark without a light. When we arrived at the Esplanade trail crossing I made sure that Norm had taken our cached water, which he had. There was still a gallon of water sitting by the trail. I sat down and over 45 minutes downed a liter of it. With Kelly politely prodding I got up for the last, steep climb out.

On the way Kelly told me about one of her colleagues, an MD from Germany named Greta who turns up at the Canyon every spring for two months to do rescue work gratis, because she loves it. “If you look at her,” Kelly said, “you can’t tell whether she’s a guy or a girl.” But Greta is enormously clever and resourceful. “Basically she can figure out and fix anything,” Kelly said. It was an interesting story, to pass the time. Like so many things on this trip, it would turn out to be more significant than that.

We got to the parking lot after dark. I was thrilled to find that Kelly had lots of Gatorade in her truck. She turned onto the road, hit the first rut, and my head slammed into the roof. I asked her if maybe we could etc. and she slowed down. We got to the motel about 9:30. Kelly vanished, talking on her radio, before I could say goodbye and thanks again. The lady behind the desk gave me Norm’s room number. She was one more person looking at me quizzically. I was about to find out why.

Wrapping my fleece blanket around me, I trudged in the chilly night air to the room and knocked on the door. Norm opened it with great smile and gave me a hug, exclaiming that they’d told him I wouldn’t be back before midnight. He was babbling stuff about water, getting to the rim after dark, a German transvestite.

I wasn’t processing all this. “Wait,” I said, and went to take a shower. When I looked into the bathroom mirror I understood the sidelong looks I’d been getting. The word “filthy” does not encompass my state at that time. Dirt was caked on my face, dripping from my hair, imbedded in a week of whiskers. I looked dangerous, like somebody you’d run away from.

I took a sublime shower, put on clean clothes. (We had stashed our good clothes and travel stuff at the hotel.) As always at the end of a hike, my trail outfit had become instantly repulsive and was quarantined into a plastic bag until I could double-wash it at home. I sat down to a sandwich Norm had gotten for me.

As I ate Norm filled me in on the end of his trip. Though had he pushed it to the point of exhaustion he hadn’t made it to the rim by 7PM, the nominal rendezvous time with the theoretical ranger–if in fact Jake had found his GPS and contacted them, and if they had somebody available to come. Among other things, on the hike out it had taken Norm 45 minutes to find the water I’d cached on the Esplanade. At 8PM he was still below the rim and hiking in the dark without a light. When he saw the rim he decided to turn uphill and clamber up the slope because the top looked so close. It wasn’t. The clamber was a disaster, during which he lost both his poles. Norm ended up back on the trail for another ten minutes of climbing until he emerged at the parking lot.

To put it mildly his heart sank when he saw the dark shapes of a couple of vehicles but otherwise no sign of life. Then suddenly the headlights of a truck lit up and out leaped the aforementioned German transvestite, crying, “You must be de hiker I meet!”

It was the intrepid Greta. When Norm told her his wallet and cell phone were locked in the SUV, she confirmed her reputation by hauling out tools and spending the next 45 minutes jimmying the door. These vehicles are not supposed to be jimmyable, but in Greta they met their match. As soon as Norm had his cell in hand he called his wife Peggy. She answered and burst into tears. For two days she had been planning the funeral. Meanwhile as instructed she’d been trying to deal with the rental car company–Hertz, for the record–to try and get another electronic key sent. They had been utterly unsympathetic and unhelpful. The car has to be towed, they said. It’s too far out a bad road to be towed, Peggy said, and there’s been a dangerous situation that required rescue. Not our problem, Hertz said.

Norm could not imagine any tow truck getting the SUV out of there on that wretched road. He left with Greta, who took him back to a motel and a nice dinner at the hotel. Norm told me he that while he enjoyed his dinner and wine he thought with sympathetic concern of me below, sleeping in my dirt.

So I was back. In the motel we turned in. I slept quite well indeed. Next morning we got up and turned to the boggling questions of how to get the SUV out of the wilderness and how to get me on a plane without an ID. Norm had already changed our flight to a day later with USAir, for which they charged us $400 each (a fee which in the end they declined to refund because of the emergency, though there is supposed to be a provision for that).

We made another stab at getting a key sent from Hertz, citing the emergency again, and again getting no drop of help or even fake sympathy. With a sigh, we called a tow place in Flagstaff, 100 miles away. We described the situation, the guy agreed to try it. The price for the tow was going to be $700 whether or not it succeeded. By now between the tow, Norm’s lost poles, the extra night at the motel, and the new flight, he was out some $1000. So was I, plus the over $1000 of my gear that went over the cliff.

Next day around noon at the motel–I was now eating on Norm’s credit card–the tow guy arrived from Flagstaff. His rig was a big flatbed that looked even more hopeless to handle a rutty dirt road than a regular tow truck. Norm headed out with him while I busied myself getting a letter from the Rangers on formal letterhead explaining that I’d had an emergency, lost my pack, had to be rescued. I saw it as the equivalent of a letter from home for the teacher. I hoped it would get me past airport security, because I was such a pathetic case. I hoped they’d understand that if I were a crook or a terrorist I would not have made up such a ridiculous story.

In high anxiety I waited hours for the return of the tow truck. This was the first and most critical of the two major problems we had left. I had visions of the SUV being unextractable, our having to actually buy the vehicle, etc. Then about 2:30 there was the tow truck outside the window. And incredibly, the SUV gleaming on the flatbed.

We piled in to the truck and Norm and the driver recounted this episode of the saga. The driver had done some fancy maneuvering. He’d never seen anything like it, he said, in years of work at the company his father founded. A couple of times he’d had to extract himself from a rut by smashing down his car-lifting crane onto the road and rocking the truck until it popped free. He became our latest savior. Meanwhile on the way out they’d run into of all people Jake and Elena, heading home in their car, looking happy and once again lovey-dovey. They invited us to join them for dinner that night. We’ll let you know, said Norm.

In fact there was no chance for a reunion with Jake and Elena. We needed to get to Flagstaff that night in time to get a new electronic key made and drive to our hotel, then leave early next morning for our flight home. We arrived just as the dealership was closing. It’ll have to be done in the morning, the guy said, but I appreciate your problem and I’ll give you a deal on the key–only $325. (It is really, really not good to lose an electronic key.)

The tow guy dropped us at the hotel in Flagstaff. Things got uneventful for the moment. The Hotel Monte Vista names its rooms for actors who once stayed there on movie shoots back in the day. Somehow they always seem to put Norm and me in the Walter Brennan room. Walter being a grizzled-old-coot sidekick in Westerns. It was OK, though, because Norm can do an impressive Walter Brennan imitation in expressing, for example, our resentment over experiencing ageism and cootism.

Next morning we got a cab to the car dealer’s, shelled out for the key, headed for Phoenix, dropped the SUV off at Hertz with some unfavorable customer comments, then headed to Sky Harbor Departures with the last pack of anxieties about getting me on the plane. At the USAir desk I presented to the lady my nice official letter from the rangers. She sighed. “Go through security,” she said. “They’ll deal with it.”

We went through the lines and stood waiting for the security guy. He arrived, I showed him my ranger letter. He examined it grimly. “This doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “Wait here.” How long, we said. It could take an hour or more, he said. But we’ll miss… “Not my problem,” he said, and disappeared.

In the event he reappeared in fifteen minutes. He sat down at a computer, typed something, and began asking me the most remarkable questions. Where was I born? What make and model and year of car did I drive? What was the make and model of my previous car? And so forth. With each correct answer he became happier. Finally he stood up with a smile and declared I was free to go. It was our last kindness of a stranger. He patted me on the back and said, “Don’t drop any more packs off cliffs.” You bet, I said.

Norm’s wife Peggy picked us up in Boston, delighted to find us both and especially Norm alive and kicking. This isn’t the first time I’ve planned Norm’s funeral, she told me. They dropped me off and I hit the sack, two days away from my mattress being constituted of soil.

Next day I went to the camping store and starting replacing my gear. A few days later I called Norm and said I thought we should do the Royal Arch again next spring and for chrissake get it right this time. Okay, Norm said.

It’s March now. We leave for the Royal Arch Trail in a month. I’m in training, determined to be in better shape than last time. Just bought a new pack. All right, I’m a little bit nuts. Norm, bless his heart, doesn’t bring that up.

 

 

SHORT STORY: IN ANOTHER COUNTRY

[Note: This story began as a dream from which I woke shaken. I immediately wrote it down, to see if I could get not just the events but the feeling of the dream into prose. Maybe I did, maybe not. In any case one of the characteristics of dream is that things do not explain themselves, they simply happen. Later I fleshed it out into a story. About half is from what I remembered of the dream, the rest invented. For example, the end is exactly from the dream; the clown came later. Yes, the title echoes Hemingway, but it needs to be that title. The story, by the way, is R-rated at best.]

 

I wake to a silent house, the reek of stale coffee rising from downstairs. Apparently my hosts have gone out. If they were here I would be hearing their raucous conversation. But I hardly know them. I’ve only had the forced camaraderie of an assigned guest.

The morning looks dismal outside half-closed blinds. From the bed I watch dust motes turning in the light from the window. With nothing better to do I drag myself up to dress and make my way down two flights from the attic bedroom to the kitchen. There is no note from my hosts, only on the table an arrow drawn on a sheet of paper, pointing to the oven where I find dried-out sausage and eggs.

I eat, reflecting on the goddamned pathetic past 24 hours. I came to this country, a long overnight flight, to hear an orchestra play a work of mine—which one, I was not informed. The flight had been arranged by somebody, but no idea who sent me the tickets. When I arrived yesterday I was driven to this tall plain house in a row of tall plain houses. The driver said he would pick me up for the concert in two hours. I asked if he knew which of my pieces they were playing. “I drive only,” he stammered.

Last night the couple who were my hosts made dinner, prattling on with shrill gaiety and now and then speaking to me, but they knew only a few words of my language. As soon as we were done eating, my driver appeared to take me to the concert. My hosts would not be attending.

I entered to find an old hall of ornate and crumbling plaster, filled with an unenthusiastic unto sullen audience. There was no program book. Instead, after the orchestra had entered and tuned, a gaunt old man in a crumpled suit sat down in a chair at the side of the stage and began to talk. It appeared he was to describe the pieces. In his rambling introductions, accompanied by weary gestures of his hands, the only words I could understand were the names of composers: Mozart, Handel, Glinka.

The Glinka came after the intermission, which I spent wandering among crowds of people talking in low tones in their language. There seemed to be nobody present who knew who I was. I began to wonder if this was some absurd mistake, that my music wasn’t on the program at all. But obviously somebody had arranged my flight and accommodations, such as they were.

Finally the old man at the side of the stage began to describe the last piece on the program. I could just recognize my name in his pronunciation. He spoke for a long time, obviously explaining that the next work was a modern one by a foreign composer who was present. There was a rising murmur in the audience, which I identified as annoyance. As he went on, his hands tracing weary circles in the air, a number of people rose, pulled on their coats, and stalked up the aisles. When he finally stopped talking, the rest of the audience settled into their seats, jaws clenched.

The conductor strode out to a smattering of applause, nodded curtly, turned and gave the downbeat. My music began. At least it was supposed to be my music. I didn’t recognize it at all. After a moment of panic, wondering if I was hallucinating or losing my mind entirely, I realized it was an old piece of mine, twenty or more years old, which had been performed once and then gratefully forgotten by everybody including me. It had lain unnoticed on my publisher’s list, from where this conductor had picked it out. The outlandish thought came to me that since the piece is called Absolution, he may simply have chosen the first title on the list.

My music went on and on, the players looking and sounding sour and bored. I’d long stopped writing pseudo-earnest pieces with stupid titles like Absolution, and long stopped hoping for absolution for anything from anybody. If I hardly remembered the piece, I did remember that my so-called friends and I had agreed it was long and thin, brimming with unearned self-importance. As it lurched and dithered on, a steady trickle of listeners got up and left.

By the time it was over I was trembling and drenched in sweat. Much of the audience had vanished. The scattered applause hardly lasted the time it took me to sprint up the aisle and shake the conductor’s hand. From the edge of the stage he bowed to me, clicked his heels, extended his arm without speaking. When I got back to my seat the applause had guttered out and people were already on their feet, shuffling toward the exits. No one looked my way except my driver, who materialized with an anxious frown to thread me through the crowd and drive me back to the house, where my hosts had gone to bed.

Now, eating my stale breakfast the morning after, I can only sigh, put it down as one more amusing story to tell at parties. Another of my famous fiascos. I am startled to notice it’s almost noon. My flight does not leave until midnight. I am contemplating going out to attempt some sightseeing when the doorbell rings.

I consider not answering, since it can only be for my hosts. But the jangling of the hand-pulled bell goes on and on, until with a curse I rise and make my way to the front door. I open it to find someone who may or may not be a postman standing on the stoop. He is wearing a faded green uniform, military or perhaps civil, with a gray cap sporting a tarnished silver insignia. Parked on the sidewalk behind him is an aged bicycle.

Like apparently goddamned everybody here, he does not know my language. With a brisk nod of his stubbly face he clicks his heels and shoves in front of me a brown envelope, pointing to the addressee. I am startled to see my name, at this address. There is no return address and no stamp, only an embossed official-looking seal in the upper left corner.

“W-what is this?” I stammer. He shakes his head, opens his palms in a gesture of incomprehension. I gape at the envelope, wondering if it might be a note or even an honorarium from the orchestra—pay had not been discussed—, when he places on top of the envelope a form and a pen.

On the form I see my name handwritten in large capitals, with an empty line hand-drawn beside it. It is a receipt I am supposed to sign. Shaking my head, I sign the form with a certain ruffled extravagance. The man carefully folds the document and stows it in his side pocket, patting the pocket smartly. He steps back, awkwardly salutes, does a military about-face and returns to his bicycle. I watch him manhandle it out to the street and pedal off without looking back.

I’m thoroughly sick of this fucking business. There is nothing I wish more profoundly than to be on the plane and be finally in my house, for all the sad histories of that place. The time before my plane leaves seems an endless desert of hours. But after all, maybe the letter is a check, or a least a note of appreciation. Though of course if it is the latter, I’ll never be able to read it.

To prolong the suspense, given that this is likely to be the day’s only excitement, I carry the letter unopened to the kitchen and finish my cold breakfast staring at the envelope propped on a saltcellar. It strikes me that in both my so-called career and my so-called life my music has had too many stumbling and uncommitted performances to tepid applause, and I’ve had too goddamned many nights in cities and hotel rooms and bedrooms where I’m a stranger.

At length, with a sigh, I rise to put my dishes in the sink. Taking a carving knife, I return to the table and pick up the letter, slash open one end and shake the contents onto the table.

It’s a single sheet of paper, folded into some complicated pattern that baffles my fingers in trying to open it. Finally it unfolds. There are so many creases that I find it hard to make out. I flatten it on the table and smooth it as best I can with my palm.

The first thing I see is an official seal in the upper left corner of the page, a grander and more ornate version of the one on the envelope. Then I realize, with an exclamation of something near pleasure, that the text is actually in my language, neatly lettered onto the page by hand, the same hand that addressed the envelope. As I read the curt sentences one by one my flesh clenches as if I’ve gotten a chill.

“Greetings,” it begins, affixing my name. “Because of your actions in another country, the Court has reached a judgment in your case.” Judgement? Case? The letter goes on to say that the decision of the Court is final, as in all such cases. I am ordered to perform certain actions that are indicated on the other enclosed sheet. Puzzled, I run my fingers over the envelope I thought I’d emptied. Sure enough there is a lump in the middle, another folded sheet that failed to fall out. I return to the document on the table.

It concludes with a stern exhortation that this is an order from the highest authority, that I must perform the required action to the end omitting no particulars however they make strike my foreign sensibility, and that attempts to escape my responsibility will have the most serious consequences. At the bottom sprawls an incomprehensible signature, followed by an equally incomprehensible notation of his title.

“Christ,” I groan aloud. “If I miss my flight because of some legal horseshit, that’s beyond the bounds of a story for parties.”

Impatiently I shake the envelope, but the other document fails to dislodge. Looking inside, I see it’s stuck to the side with glue from the flap. I tear the envelope apart and, after some angry scrabbling, unfold the new sheet, in the process tearing it across the center.

Now I’m swearing as I try to align the document on the table. It is a half page rather than a full one, again with the embossed seal in the corner, but this time the text is typewritten, on some ragged old machine. At least it’s in my language again, more or less. With difficulty, struggling to keep the torn halves together, I read the outlandish sentences with mounting consternation:

In afternoon you be met by female person. You have not to find her, as it is she who must have found you. She knows fully of you case and she has been informed of her duty, which she has fully affirmed. You may freely chat with this female if you desire and if desire share a meal and beverages with her, at expense of Court. But this for three hours only. By that moment at latest, you must return accompanying her to you lodging, to you private chamber, and there you are required to have congress with this person. She understand this requirement and has fully affirmed. Immediately as you have complete this act of congress, it is the wish and order of this Court that you fullfil this decree by terminate the life of this female. This end of course she not cognizant of. Which means you do so are at you descretion, but it must be accomplish by you own hands, i.e. not with firearm or other machinery. It is suggested that strangulation is profferred method. When you have completed this decree in full you will be declare entirely free and at-large, having fullfiled the order of this Court.

It must be stress that this order is authorized fully at highest level, and it is final decree. Failure to act or any attempt to excape will be treated with full severity of law, as a supreme action of contemp to this Court and this Government.

I finish reading it with my mind in a wail of white noise. With trembling fingers holding the torn halves together I read it a second and a third time. I am overcome by a maze of thoughts, the first being: “I can still make the plane.” The second, of course, being, “What the fuck do you mean, make the plane? This is a joke. Some kind of weird cruel joke, but it has to…” But who could play a joke like this, and why would they want to? Was it somehow arranged by friends back home, some elaborate prank involving cohorts in this buttfuck country? How would they know anybody here? Besides I don’t remember telling anybody I was coming. And why would the few actual friends I possess want to do this to me?

With a chill in my groin it enters my mind that this is no joke at all. It’s some incomprehensible decree of some ghastly star chamber of some ghastly fucking political order I know nothing about. Visions of foreign jails dance in my head, people imprisoned for life, eating cockroaches to survive, flogged and stoned for smoking a joint.

I do understand, very clearly, one relevant thing.: There is no limit, no limit whatsoever to what governments can do to people, if they simply want to.

But this, for godssake, I think. This surely is not real, surely at least this is too fucking much. I’ll go to the… I remember reading that there is no embassy in this country, the implication being: If you want to travel there, you poor fool, you’re on your own. Then white noise again, in my mind.

I don’t know how long I sit there at the kitchen table. After some amount of time, my guts shaking, I get up and ransack the kitchen for a drink. All I can find is the end of a bottle of wine, sitting uncorked in the refrigerator. I upend the bottle and drink the bitter icy liquid in one slug. It’s no help.

A few more minutes standing in the middle of the kitchen and something on the order of a plan has emerged. I can hope and still do hope that this isn’t real, it’s a nightmare from which I will awake, or a joke or the wrong order or the wrong person on the envelope. But you can’t afford to count on it not being real, I tell myself. Can’t afford. If it is real I see one chance. She has to find me, the order says. That’s my chance.

I run up the stairs and open my bag. From it I take my plane ticket and passport and all the local currency I have, small ragged bills with smudged pictures of generals and politicians and more incomprehensible words and numbers. I can’t remember how much of my own currency I paid for it. All I can hope is it’s enough for a cab to the airport and something to eat.

I rattle down the stairs with plane ticket, passport, and cash in my pockets. If I have to get on the plane without my luggage, so be it. I have to presume they’re watching me and I must not look as if I’m trying to escape. But there was no order that I have to stay in the house. If I do some complicated sightseeing and lose them I can still deny I was escaping. If they accost me at the airport and the girl has failed to find me, it’s their problem, according to their own words.

Jesus, I think as I reach the front door. You really don’t know if it’s real. Why don’t you call it a game, a game you’re playing with somebody who’s playing a game with you? It’s hide-and-seek, escaping but not escaping. It’s up to them to find you. Only don’t assume, don’t take chances. After all at the worst, at the very worst, it’s not you that’s supposed to get fucked and die.

Out on the street I walk aimlessly, wondering if I’m being followed but seeing nobody who appears to be interested in me. After a few blocks I find myself on a broad street lined with shops selling formless clothes, bread and cakes, poultry feed. A few shoppers struggle in and out of stores, most of them heavy old women in headscarves, lugging paper bags of clothes and other items. I realize the clothes I see wadded up in the bags are used, so presumably the women are bringing them to barter in the stores. This goddam country, I murmur. This buttfuck country.

I walk briskly, taking a turn here and there, trying to throw off anybody who might be tailing me. If anybody is, I can’t detect them. I find little traffic, but there are dark-green buses smoking and coughing down every street. At length, feeling naked in the open, I go into a bakery. In its sticky-sweet atmosphere I imitate a customer, perusing cases full of black bread, baroquely-decorated pastries and cakes, greasy pirogis.

What I’m looking for is a rear exit. By the end of the cases I see the edge of a door around a corner in back. I stroll toward it, expecting to be stopped, but nobody calls out. I open the door onto a long alley. After quietly closing the door behind me, I dash down the alley and across a side street, then two more alleys and streets. Periodically I look back to see if somebody is chasing me. No one.

I’m hardly an athlete. After another minute of running I collapse groaning and gasping in the back doorway of a shop. It takes a long time to get my breath. Then I compose myself, open the door and walk in, trying to look the interested customer. For chrissake, it’s a women’s foundation garment shop. Rows of corsets on chipped plaster torsos. A saleswoman coming toward me, shaking her finger, presumably asking what the hell I’m doing. I brush past her, waving aside her complaints.

Emerging onto the sidewalk I find one of the smoke-belching buses pulling up to a stop. I decide to get on it, vacate the area entirely. The bus has its destination on the front but of course I can’t read it. It’s away from here, anyway. Maybe I can spend the day riding buses, crouching out of sight, then at the end find a bus to the airport. Idly I wonder how I’ll ask directions when nobody understands anything I say. Who knows. Flap my arms.

I get on to discover that the bus is empty. Even though I feel sure I’ve lost anybody following me, I can’t help wondering if they could have dispatched it especially for me. Who knows that either. I’ve got to do something and this is the only thing I can think of.

I pick a bill out of my wallet at random and hand it to the driver, a little stubbly guy in a dirty uniform and hat. I hope to God there’s some change. He regards the bill with the particular annoyance of a bus driver receiving a large denomination, snarls something at me. I can only shrug, gesture at my mouth like a dumb person. Since he can see I’m a foreigner I expect him to look at my wallet and pick a smaller denomination. Instead, muttering curses he pulls out a roll of money and begins laboriously peeling them off. Finally he hands me a stack of threadbare bills.

As the bus pulls out I make my way to the back where there are no windows, wondering if I’m going to be delivered straight to the police. But in the next stops a few other passengers turn up, most of them riding only a few blocks before getting off. I note that since nobody stays on, nobody seems to be shadowing me unless they’re doing it in relays. Besides, most of the passengers are old women, the same ones going in and out of the stores lugging items for barter. I notice their shopping bags remain full of old clothes. They must be going from store to store, trying to find somebody to accept their castoffs.

How long do I have to put up with this misery before I escape to the airport? How long before the plane leaves? Seven hours? Eight? I look at my watch. God almighty, it’s nearly ten hours before my plane takes off, and I want to be there at the last minute.

After an hour I see a block I recognize and realize that this bus route must be a circuit of the downtown area. Not good. I’d hoped I was being hauled out to the suburbs. I’m wondering if I should get off and take another bus when I see that we’ve pulled into a stop with a queue lined up. Behind them, looming over the sidewalk, is a large building of soot-blackened marble with enormous classical columns. I can’t read the sign in front of the building but the total effect unquestionably says art museum. Maybe a good place to get lost in. Browse the paintings for a few hours, melt into the crowd, have some lunch if there’s a café. Compared to the stifling boredom and anxiety of the bus, almost a pleasant prospect.

The driver is about to pull out when I spring to the front crying, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” He screeches the bus to a halt and slams open the door, cursing at me as I descend the steps. At the bottom I stumble, which draws a laugh from the passengers on the bus. As it pulls away in a cloud of exhaust I collect myself and head for the door of the museum as fast as I can without looking suspicious.

In the gigantic, echoing stone lobby there is no art and no human presence at all except a desiccated man, in another of the invariably ill-fitting suits, sitting behind a wooden desk and coughing wetly into a handkerchief. I go to him and do my pantomime indicating I can’t speak the language, I don’t know the currency, I am an idiot foreigner. I show him the wad of bills from the bus and with great deliberation he extracts some. After a curt wave at the stairs behind him, he renders me invisible.

I trudge up the stairs and turn into the first gallery I come to. There are exactly three people in the large room, an old man and a student couple arguing in front of a painting of trees. If I’d hoped to get lost in a museum crowd, I can forget about it. I can’t think of anything to do but keep moving, watch for anybody watching me, maybe try to find an out of the way gallery somewhere, or a back table in a café.

Look at the paintings and don’t think, I tell myself. Be alert but don’t think. You’ll only get scared. You’ve probably lost them. Assume you’ve lost them, or nobody was following you in the first place. I make a circuit of the gallery, pretending to examine the canvases. I don’t recognize a single artist. It occurs to me that all the works in the room are by painters of this country and nearly all of them are of trees, with a few of cows.

In the next room the prevailing motif is of handsome, determined workers of both sexes grasping farm implements and striding boldly into the future. Also a few paintings of large-eyed children that are supposed to be cute, some of them also striding boldly into the future. Also more cows. After viewing six rooms off the long dingy hall I conclude that the artists of this country paint only trees, children, heroic workers, and cows, all in a kind of runny Impressionist style. Meanwhile I have concluded that some of the paintings are more “modern,” in that the cows are rendered as piebald blobs floating in a puddle of dirty green I take to indicate grass.

In desperation I shuttle from empty room to nearly empty room, standing in each doorway sweeping my eyes around the walls to find anything recognizable or even endurable. In the last room off the hall I am in the doorway about to turn on my heel when I notice a flash of color on the far wall. Somebody is standing in front of the painting, obscuring most of it, but in the corners I see a smoky pink unlike anything else I’ve seen in this excruciating museum.

I make my way to the painting. The young woman in front of it moves politely to the side, and I am confronted by what appears to be a child’s drawing of a clown. There it is, archetypal in its stumbling lines, its ovoid body decked with big orange buttons. One of the stick-figure hands holds a wobbly line that ascends to a misshapen balloon, the purple coloring of it zigzagging out of the lines. The clown floats above a puke-yellow floor, behind him lying that pink I saw from across the room, which clashes nastily with the yellow of the floor.

After a moment of staring in disbelief I realize that whoever perpetrated this monstrosity is actually a painter. The picture gives the impression of a child’s crayon but is in fact done in oils. And the picture is not just any child’s drawing of a clown but somehow the distillation and summation of all children’s stupid, maladroit pictures of clowns. Except no child would draw that soul-scouring face. The eyes are bugging in maniac joy, the pupils nearly dropped out of sight, and the mouth… My god, the mouth. It’s gaping in an impossible psycho-killer smile, the teeth huge, misshapen and carnivorous. This clown looks like he is about to leap off the canvas and sink those monstrous fangs into your throat. I see that in the corner of his mouth the artist has made a little drip of crimson, mixed in a way to make it glisten wetly.

“Excuse me?” the person next to me says.

I am so transfixed by the painting that for a moment I don’t respond. “Oh, it’s…” I finally get out. “What did I…”

“Excuse me, you said ‘My God,’ I think.”

I look up in confusion, then down. It’s a girl with short black hair, looking up at me, the top of her head hardly reaching my chest.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I thought I thought those words, not said them aloud. I’m… Wait. You speak my language. You’re the first person I’ve met here who does!”

“Yes,” she says. “I speak it a little.”

I feel enormous relief having somebody to talk to. “No, really” I tell her reassuringly, “You speak very well, hardly any accent.”

“Thank you,” she says. “I have studied.”

There is an awkward silence. Despite myself my eyes drift from her and return to the grisly image in front of us.

“Do you like this painting now?” she asks politely. I look at her again. She appears early 20s, slightly built, somewhere between waif and gamine, a little pretty but only just. She wears an old plaid flannel shirt and ballooning pseudo-jeans, a knitted purse over her shoulder. On her face is a certain ironic half-smile.

“Good God,” I can only reply, waving my hand toward the thing. “Jesus Christ. I mean, I guess it’s extraordinary in a way, but it’s the goddamndest thing I’ve… Oh shit, I mean, I’m sorry, excuse my language.”

“It is no problem,” she says.

“I mean, this is…it’s utterly different from anything else in the museum. Who is this, this, how did it get here?”

“Oh, he is one of our modern artists. Most of them show in the modern art museum outside of the city, but in this place they always hang one painting from that museum, so the people can see what it is like.” ”

“Oh shit. I mean… Sorry.”

“No, it is no problem.”

“What are the other paintings like in the modern museum?”

She shrugs, turns her mouth down. “Well you know, most of them they are sort of like this one.” She gives a little shudder of her shoulders. “They are clowns, or big dogs. Scary things, yes?”

“I think I would agree,” I breathe, shaking my head. “Scary things. But are you actually saying that the modern artists paint only clowns and dogs?”

“Well, you see, this is the museum of traditional art, and the other is the museum of modern art. The artists in that other museum are called anti-revolutionary painters. So they make what they do, and the artists of this museum make what they do.” She says this with a certain tincture of irritation, at having to explain the obvious.

“Anti-revolutionary. Is that illegal, to be anti-revolutionary? And who decides who is what?”

“Oh no, is not illegal, no. This is free country for artists, for everybody. Only if you are a painter the police gives you a, a, what do you call it, an official piece of paper…”

“A certificate.”

“Yes, a certificate saying what kind of painter you are.”

Now I am looking at her rather than the painting in disbelief. “Wait. Let me get this straight. If you are a certified anti-revolutionary painter you can paint anything you like, as long as it’s hideous pictures of clowns and dogs. If you’re a traditional painter you do trees, kids, workers, and cows, and that’s it.”

She shrugs again. “Well, it is something like that I suppose, if you wish to put it so.”

“Look, I’m not trying to insult you, your, I’m only trying, you know, to understand how… But Jesus Christ, I mean, dogs and clowns? And the anti-revolutionary paintings, they’re required to be awful, I gather, so people will hate them?”

She turns down her mouth with no reply. I’m getting on her nerves. “Does anybody ever go to the other museum?” I ask.

“Oh, yes. The people go there sometimes because they are curious. The anti-revolutionary museum is not very often open, but the people go. You are allowed to go one time without registering, but after that you must register.”

“What, are people arrested for going back?”

“Oh no, of course not. Only you must register.”

I stretch my arms upward, bring my hands down clasped on my head and puff out my cheeks. My famous gesture of bemusement. Her eyes are wandering to the other paintings. Clearly she’s ready to be free of me. I’ll set her free. “I’m sorry for all these questions,” I say after another awkward silence. “After all I’m only here for a couple of days and I can’t imagine, I, I mean I don’t understand how things work here.”

“Oh, you are leaving soon?” she asks without interest, her eyes drifting over the room.

“Yes, flying out tonight.” She nods politely, still looking away. “Listen,” I say. “Can I ask you if there’s a café in the museum. You know, coffee, something to eat.”

“Yes, there is a place. It is easy for one to find, right above us on the next estage. They have coffee but not so much food, I am afraid.”

“I’ll eat whatever they’ve got. So, I… Thanks so much for your, ah, ah, your very interesting information about the art of your country. I know my artist friends back home will be very interested in the, um, uuh, the way you do things here.”

“It is no problem. I hope that your journey home will be a good one and that you will have good memories of our country.”

“I’m sure I shall,” I say with a little bow that I hope is appropriate.

Apparently shaking hands is not appropriate. She turns away and heads toward a painting of a cow. I sweep my eyes over the walls, their trees, kids, bold striders into the future, and cows. I give a final shudder to the clown, and head for the next floor.

The café is a dim brown cube with a few tiny tables and two small windows glowering from the back. Somebody’s pathetic idea of Moderne. Behind the counter the attendant stands in front of an enormous eagle-winged espresso machine in tarnished copper and nickel. On the counter is no doubt the only available food, a plate with three pale buns. I order an espresso and all the buns and take them to the farthest table in the room, sit down with my back to the door.

The buns have raw dough in the middle and the coffee tastes like despair. I look at my watch. Sweet Jesus, eight hours to go. Endless, endless, endlessness. I wonder how long I can sit here, sipping this vile stuff and eating the cooked bits of the buns and staring at the wall and trying not to think, before I go utterly mad. I take a few deep breaths to see if I can in some measure calm down. Finally out of desperation I decide to try and use the time to do some composing in my head, look for ideas. I’m supposed to be writing a piece for harpsichord and viola da gamba, which I stupidly offered to compose, for no fee, for a couple who are nominally friends of mine. It’s the last thing in the world I need to be doing with my time. Not to mention doing it for people who think they’re better friends of mine than they actually are. But right now I’ve got as they say time on my hands, time to kill, nothing but time.

To my surprise I find myself getting into it. I play a game of thinking up things for the gamba as if it were harpsichord music, things for the harpsichord as if for gamba. Do this all the time, leap out of the rut by imagining something impossible. I’m sort of famous for that. After I don’t know how much time trying over ideas in my head I half-hear the espresso machine huffing and chuffing across the room. Then the scrape of a chair at the next table and the rattle of a cup and saucer. Annoyed at the interruption, I look over to find, even more annoyingly, the girl from downstairs.

She gives me a shy smile. “You remember me?” she says. “Your friend from the clown painting?”

“Certainly, of course.”

“I did not know if you will still be here, but I felt a little bad about our conversation.”

“Bad? How so?”

“Oh, you know. You appeared a little confuse or even upset. I think perhaps I did not provide you enough with explanation so that you would understand properly about our artists.” She sits back in her chair, gives me a friendly smile, asks what country I’m from. I tell her. “I thought so,” she says.

“Really. How can you tell?”

“The shoes. All the people from your country have the shoes like this.”

I lift my right foot and examine it curiously. “No, really. Do many people from my country visit this place?”

“Not so many, but some do. The people here say that they can tell one of you far away because of the shoes.”

At that I actually laugh out loud. So does she. Her face improves notably with laughter. In another time and another place, sweetheart, I think.

“You know,” she is saying, ”I have always wished to visit your country. It is not so easy to get permission to do so, but it can be done if you know right people. I hear your cities are very big and very clean and rich.”

“Big yes, sometimes clean, rich not always.”

“I think I would like to work in a bank in your country. You can learn about business and make a lot of money, no?”

My turn to shrug. I’ll let her talk. I’m enjoying the sound of her voice, its offbeat rhythms and exotic vowels.

“I am not greedy, you understand,” she goes on. “That is not good thing to be in our country. But if I obtained some money I could come back home and better myself, you know? Are there okay places to live in your country, if you have not any money yet?”

“Well, you should come with a month’s rent anyway,” I advise. “The best thing is to have friends you can stay with at first.”

“Oh no, I know of no one in your country. I would be completely, what do you say, naive? No, that is not right word. But I would love to go there.” Her face darkens. “Only I must ask one thing.”

“Ask away, my dear.” Watch it, I think. You’re getting carried away. You have one goal and one only, to get the holy fuck out of here.

“I want to ask if they torture people in your country.”

“What? I… No! Not at all! Jesus, where did you get such an idea? Does your government say we do?”

She traces her finger across a spill of coffee on the table, her face gloomy. “No, not exactly do they say that. You know I, I think about torture a lot. In some countries, the things they do to a girl, it is terrible.”

“It is indeed. Does that mean they torture people here?”

“Oh no, naturally not. This is good country, free country. Only the last government, before this one, they did do torture, yes. Many people suffered, I am sorry to tell you.”

“Did he present regime take over by force?”

“Yes, I am sorry to tell you also. Five years ago. But not so many people got killed as last time there was revolution. That was very bad revolution.” Suddenly she brightens. “Oh, I remember now, you say you fly tonight. Do you have transportation to the airport?”

“No. I suppose I’ll have to take a bus.”

“Do you know which buses to take?” I shake my head. She pulls a stub of pencil from her purse and picks up a napkin. “I show you then. Is maybe a little complicated, the airport is a way from here. But there is bus from almost front of your house.” Sitting down close next to me, she leans over and begins to draw a network of lines, with notation of several transfers I am to make, carefully writing out the bus numbers so I can recognize them, ending with a square containing a little airplane and an exclamation point. It is a painfully charming drawing. I can smell her breath, sweet with a bitter undertone of cigarette. To my astonishment I feel my groin stirring.

When she has finished she picks up the napkin with a smile and extends it to me. “Here it is, Warren. From your front door to the airport, you have plenty of time. May I call you Warren?”

“Sure,” I say.

Then I realize I haven’t told her my name or where I’m staying or anything about my flight.

A chill begins at the base of my spine and leaps up to my brain. It is followed by a wave of heat that brings sweat springing to my forehead.

She chatters on. “If I could make some money in your country I could improve myself here. I could buy a nice violin. I am musician, you know, I play the violin.”

I am having trouble finding breath to speak. “Tell me,” I rasp, “what’s your name?”

She gives me her sweet waif smile, picking up her espresso cup. “That is not important,” she says over the cup. I am looking intently into her eyes as she sips. “What is it you?” she asks. “Do you like my face?”

“Were you in the orchestra that played my piece last night? Was that you in the second violins?”

“Oh, maybe, maybe not,” she says playfully, tilting her head to the side. “That is not so important either. Do you mind I ask you something?”

I’m in a fog. Like we’re normal people, like we’re a boy and a girl, like we’re hitting it off. Only my mouth is dry and I can hardly find breath to speak. “Yeah. Sure. Ask me.”

“I like you. I think you are so handsome. Do you like me?”

“Sure. Yes, I like you.”

“I do not want you get the wrong idea. I am not prostitute if that is maybe what you are thinking. I am not that kind of a girl. This does not concern money. I only, you know, like you and would like to hear if you like me also.”

Words are tolling in my head like the beating of a gong. Have congress with this person. Terminate the life of this person. I can’t talk around it anymore.

“It’s you. You’re the one the Court sent.”

She gives a shy laugh and looks down at the table. “Maybe, but also not so important.”

“This is impossible. I was… How did you find me?”

She laughs again. “Find you? We never lost you!”

It’s hard to catch a breath. I shake my head in the latest disbelief, this time the big final disbelief. “You say everything’s not important. Not fucking important. I’d say it’s pretty goddamned important. I’d say it’s important and ridiculous, important and tragically stupid, surreally important and… and…”

She looks at me earnestly with her big gray eyes. “Oh, do not be angry please, Warren. When they told me what I must do, I was unsure as I had been before, but they told me you are good looking, and they were correct.” A big smile. “You are so handsome as a man at your age. I am so happy to have meet you and to help you.”

Help me, I’m thinking. God almighty, help me. She doesn’t know. She’s done this before. Done it because somebody ordered her to. She knows about the congress, not about the terminate. Of course she doesn’t know about the terminate. Oh shit, old buddy. Oh Christ, oh hell, oh fuck, boyo, what are you going to do now?

“What?” I say. She has been talking.

“I am sorry, I ask how long is it before you have the plane? Is it seven hours from now?”

I look at my watch. It is exactly seven hours until the plane takes off.

She’s shy and apologetic in everything she does, but she is relentless. “Okay, look, you have lots of time, no? I tell you, Warren, I would really like to see where it is you are staying. Why we not go back to your place, your nice little room in the attic, and we can see what may happen?”

My head is down, I’m looking at the scratches that cover the greasy café table, the initials cut into the surface, the obscene doodles scrawled all over it. “Do I have any choice?” I say.

I feel her taking my elbow, pulling me to my feet.

“Come, Warren, let us go to your attic.”

“I don’t have any choice, do I?” I say.

“Come,” she says. “You will be glad.”

As she leads me out I ask, “Don’t we have to pay?”

“It is taken care of.”

As we emerge from the museum a black car pulls up to the curb. At the wheel is the man who drove me to the concert last night. During the drive back to the house she looks at me now and then, beaming. I avoid her eyes and say nothing. Now and then the driver gives me a sideward glance in the rearview mirror. My head and stomach are churning. Sooner than I would have thought we arrive at the house. She playfully pulls me out of the car. I reel on the sidewalk, then sink to my knees and vomit on the concrete.

“Oh, Warren, poor boy,” she says, patting me on the back. “I am so sorry. Poor boy. There now, you feel better, no? My poor boy.” When I stand up and wipe my mouth on the back of my sleeve, she puts her arm through mine and steers me to the door. “Come, we will go and get some water. I will give you a tablet that I have that will make you okay.” I look back to the black car sitting at the curb, engine running, the driver staring straight ahead.

In the kitchen she fishes a packet of medicine out of her purse, extracts a tablet, fills a glass at the sink and hands them to me with an air of concern. As I swallow the pill and sip the water she runs her hand through my hair. “You have such nice hair,” she says. “This is not usual with men of your age.” A burst of music and thumping erupts from upstairs.

“Oh no,” she says, looking up at the ceiling. “This is not right. There are not supposed to be people up there. Let us go up and see what is going on. Do your stomach feel better?”

Actually it does. I nod.

She leads me up the two flights of stairs to the attic, the music mounting as we climb. She opens the door of my room to find a party in progress, as many as ten babbling students crammed into the small space, an ancient phonograph on the table, a couple dancing in the middle, rubbing against each other.

“Excuse me,” she says, pushing me back into the hall. “Excuse me, I must talk with these people.”

She closes the door. Standing stupidly alone in the hall I hear shouts in the room, the words of which of course I don’t understand, though it’s clear the kids aren’t wanting to budge. The idea of making a run for it crosses my mind, the first actual thought I’ve had since we left the museum. Then another phrase tolls in my head: Failure to act or any attempt to excape will be treated with full severity of law. Then another fleeting attempt at hope, Maybe if the kids won’t leave it won’t happen, there will be no… no congress. But that’s ridiculous. If it’s gone this far they won’t be deterred by students having a party. I feel like I’m about to puke again.

She comes out the door looking angry, pulling the door shut behind her. “They do not wish to leave. But they tell me there is another bedroom here, over at that door. And look!” She waves an open and nearly full bottle of wine. “They give us this! We have our own party, no?”

I follow her across the hall and into the other bedroom. Here there is a dusty overstuffed armchair chair next to a small chipped table, a bed draped in a sheet. She closes the door and pushes me back into the chair. Putting her purse and the bottle of wine on the table, she takes off her sneakers, revealing white socks, and sits on my lap. “It is okay?” she says.

“Yeah, sure, it’s okay,” I say.

“I am not too heavy for you?”

“Of course not.” She toys with my hair. Her flannel shirt smells delicately perfumed. Under the ugly jeans her backside feels taut and trim. She picks up the wine and drinks from the bottle. “Now you must drink, you see,” she says, handing it to me. “It is custom.” I take a long pull, surprised that it sits well on my stomach, and hand the bottle back to her. She tilts it up, hands it back. “Each time I drink, you must reply. It is custom.” She giggles. “You must not stop till I stop.”

With the first draft of wine my mind begins to race. She’s a shy young second violinist. What was her crime, that she has to die for? Worse, is there no crime, only an arbitrary decree of some sadistic regime to demonstrate their power of life and death. Or simply to amuse themselves.

As I take another pull of wine I begin to imagine her as a frail sad violin solo, obliterated by brass and percussion. I imagine, when I’m back home, writing an elegy for this sweet tragic child, an elegy for her and for all victims of all decrees of all regimes. But if I write her elegy and confess the reason for it, will I expose my guilt? Can I be held accountable for her death? Or do I have to add her to my list of sins unconfessed and unabsolved? That long, sorry list. What’s going to happen to her maybe not the worst item on it. My next pull of wine finishes the bottle.

We both jump. There are heavy footsteps running up the stairs. Outside in the hall we hear a burst of music as the door of the other bedroom is flung open. A male voice barks loud, authoritative commands, threats. Immediately the music stops, we hear a bustle of frightened youthful voices, the sound of the partiers racing down the stairs. There is a sharp knock on our door, and the voice snaps three words.

She sighs, rises from my lap and extends her hands to pull me from the chair. “Okay, our room is ready now. Our bower, I think you call it.”

When we emerge in the hall there is nobody around. I have to do it, I’m thinking as we go in and she closes the door. I have to do it. God help me, I think I have to do it. But there’s one thing you can’t control, you sons of bitches of the Court. There is no way in heaven or earth I can get it up for this. There will be no congress, you bastards. Just the termination.

She has lain down on the bed, looking up at me with liquid eyes and a small sad smile. She reaches her arms toward me. “It is time,” she says. “We have waited so long. I want for you. Come here, my poor boy.”

I lie down on top of her. She feels terribly frail and small. As I kiss her she begins to pant, to squirm liquidly under me, to give little moans. In a moment, pushing me aside, she stands up and hastily removes her clothes, the old plaid shirt and too-big jeans. She is not wearing a bra. Only with her panties does she hesitate, look at me with sudden uncertainty. Then she leans over and pulls them down her legs.

“Do you like me?” she says shyly as she stands up and kicks away the panties.

“Very much, of course.” It’s the only thing I can think to say. I am surprised to see that her body is not frail but sinewy, athletic, with thin hips and low girlish breasts.

“I am happy,” she says, smiling awkwardly. “Now you.”

She leans over and begins unbuttoning my shirt. I shake my head and brush her hand away, unbutton the shirt myself, slip off my shoes, rise to pull my pants and underwear down together.

We contemplate my disappointing flaccidness. “I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s so strange, all this, and I have trouble sometimes.”

“I understand,” she murmurs. “It is no problem.” Gently she places her hands on my shoulders, pushes me back down to the bed. “But let me try, my poor boy, let me see what I can do to help you.”

As I lie back she kneels between my thighs in an attitude of prayer, her clasped hands over my groin, then begins patiently to stroke and massage me. When to my amazement I begin to stir, I hear her breathing quicken again as she expertly kisses and licks. When I am fully ready she presses me to turn lengthwise on the bed and leaps on top, reaching between her legs to pull me inside her. I am devoured in warm wetness.

Then she is bucking on me, moaning, finally giving sharp cries. When her time is near she leans over, squeezing me hard inside, and gasps into my ear, “You first! You first!” I am first, she a second after, with a scream that turns into a dying wail. She collapses onto me, her gasping slowly receding. I feel warm tears on my chest.

In the tumult of my thoughts at that moment I remember she does not understand what is to come next, what I am ordered to do. Strangulation profferred. What kind of betrayal will it be in her last thoughts, when I do it to her?

My heart is galloping. I can’t tell if she hears it. After some moments, when I have shrunk and slipped out of her, she sighs and slides off me, settling onto her back and looking at me silently with glistening eyes. Both arms rest above her head, her neck is pale and naked. I turn on my side and stare back into her eyes, searching for an answer, anything. Finding nothing I reach up and stroke her hair. For a moment she does not speak or move, only sighs and looks into my eyes as I stroke her hair, stroke her shoulders, slip my fingers down her chest to her hips and thighs, into the moist void between.

“Now,” she whispers. “Now what must we do?”

I can’t suppress a sob. She looks at me silently, concerned, not moving. Trembling, I rise to my knees above her. I rest one hand lightly on her chest, the other curled in a fist beside her neck. I can smell her on my hands. “I’m sorry,” I say.

“I know,” she whispers. “I know what you feel. I am glad.”

I put my hands around her neck and squeeze. Her body and her face contort with the pain, but she does not resist. She closes her eyes. “I’m sorry,” I’m saying as I straddle her trembling body and tighten my hands around her windpipe. “I’m so terribly sorry.”

I feel a piercing pain in my back. I cry out, release her and fall heavily onto the bed. In her left hand I see a silver dagger, covered with my blood.

I am fighting for breath. I feel strength draining from me faster than I ever could have imagined.

She watches me, her liquid eyes full of pity. She lays the dagger on the table next to the bed and gets up on her knees beside me.

“Go to sleep now,” she says quietly. “It is nearly over.”

“Who are you?” I gasp.

“That is not important,” she murmurs. She strokes my brow.

“Why?”

“Did you truly not guess why you were brought here?” she asks earnestly.

“No. For god’s sake you…”

“Good. I am glad you did not. That is the way they hope it will be. It is the way it should be.”

“Why?” Her face is blurred in my vision now. I shift my body and gasp in a flash of pain. I feel the sheets wet and sticky beneath me.

“Do not move,” she says, putting her hand lightly on my chest. “It is better if you do not move, the pain is worse. Only relax. It is nearly over.”

“B-b-but wh- wh–?” I can only gasp out words now.

“It was felt to be more humane,” she says, sitting back on her heels and looking down at me from what seems an immense distance. “They had tried other ways, then they came to this way, and I also think it is best. It gives you a chance, a last chance.”

“Who, who…” Soon I will not be able to talk anymore. Only gasp, and that not for long.

“It is not important,” she says. She leans over me and begins to stroke my brow again, with great tenderness. “I want to tell you that you did well. So many men, they break down and run and have to be hunted. Others, the worst, they enjoy it. They strut and laugh, it turns them on when we are in bed. But you felt sadness for me. That was good. That is the way they intended it. That is the way it is supposed to be.”

“You…W-why did…”

“Do not try to talk now. You see, at first they used very beautiful girls, but then they realized, for the men, it became too much a matter of sex. And too many tried to flee with the women, though they were told it would not succeed and it never did.” She smiled her shy smile. “So they began using girls like me, not so pretty, so the men had the chance to feel sadness and pity, if it was in them to feel those things.”

She looks into my eyes, her eyes soft but her face firm. She runs her fingers over my cheek, presses them briefly into my neck to feel my pulse. “You cannot talk anymore, can you? That is good. Let it go. You have done well. I congratulate you. Whatever things you have done up to this day, up to this moment, whatever it was that brought you to me, I want to tell you that I give you absolution and I admire you.”

Everything is like a light receding into a tunnel, slipping away into darkness and cold. With the last of the light I feel her lips pressing into mine. The sweetest kiss

ACCIDENT AND ELOQUENCE IN THE ICEBOX MEDIUM

 

(This is a piece written years ago that I made extensive and unsuccessful efforts to sell.)

I was introduced to the splendor of accidental poetry years ago, when I scrounged a box for packing from the back of a stationery store. At home I discovered, written on a flap in magic marker, a lyric that began

Across the miles

Secret pal

I call your name

It went on in that aphoristic way, getting more nebulous as it went. I felt a need to call a halt to my packing and think for a moment. Who would scrawl a poem of such tenderness on a discarded box? More to the point, I thought of secret pals I’ve known, how many times in anguish and yearning I’ve called their names, across the miles.

I didn’t encounter such lyrics again until my brother the Southern California surrealist poet gave me a set of refrigerator poetry magnets. They come in flat rubber blocks of words, which adhere to the metal of your fridge as invitations to serendipitous inspiration. You separate out the words or fragments of them (s, ing), which are inscribed in stark black on white, lower case except for the imperious I. The juxtapositions arriving on the blocks already give you ideas:

goddess blue who say

whispers one preformed line. More arresting are the accidental artifacts, blocks stripped of most of their words to leave the hint of a story, breathlessly told, reminiscent of e e cummings:

no

I if

I he

Another artifact is a teenager’s conversation:

like like like

Another ascends from speculation to being:

if

if

if

is

And what could beat the heroic randiness of

apparatus raw but bed

In a block next to the freezer handle we find ourselves in the middle of a word and of an evocative, somehow disturbing scene that’s left the speaker stuttering in dismay:

ing a a chain

Magnetic poetry is something to pursue late at night or in odd moments when there’s nothing else to do but have a bowl of cereal and contemplate eternity and the refrigerator. It’s swell for parties, too. Have contests! Entertain your friends! (And writing about refrigerator poetry can help provide an answer to a question that applies to a lot of one’s private enthusiasms: Everybody thinks their own stuff is fabulous, but does anybody else think so? Or are they more apt to find other people’s, for example, dreams, aspirations, refrigerator poetry just stupid? A writer friend of mine insists sternly that nobody else is interested in your dreams or your refrigerator poetry.)

On my fridge the mine of raw words spreads across the top of the freezer door. From there poetry drips down in clots, strings, random profusions. There’s a simple but sternly enforced set of rules: Anybody can make a poem, but woe to any who, in selfish pursuit of their own mot juste, strips a word from somebody else’s poem, or is so barbaric as to edit others’ work without permission. The job is to take words from what’s left and let inspiration bubble up from happenstance–the conjunction of imagination and serendipity being, after all, one definition of the creative process.

Below the mine of words on my freezer door, the trail of poems begin tentatively, prosaically:

boil meat

From there the expressive ambitions mount:

frantic repulsive eternity

   shot from bare feet

I don’t understand that one. But the next one hits home, like a rhythmic summary of my emotional life:

I heave my enormous essential lust void

From there on across the white quasi-porcelain material of the refrigerator door, verse runs amok. There’s a curse directed to a beloved:

may you sit in shadow

         honey

Every time I look at that I want to flip it to an ironic but sunnier version,

may you sit in honey

shadow

But that would be against the rules.

I rarely remember who pasted what, but I know this guy, the one who has to be naughty:

tiny finger up moaning woman

In wielding the sex motif, our kitchen poets get fresher and grittier:

sordid tongue worship

Also more concretely steamy:

   lick

with finger

after

The meatier stuff turns to the cosmic, here to the sullying of nature herself by our little angsts:

languid scream power will urge spring away

Nature turns up a lot, partly because the mine of words supplied by the poetry-magnet company is lush in natural imagery.

from behind the rain

purple summer

Renewal springs eternal on the fridge as in life, metaphors turning to ripe and fruitful–

delirious chocolate

dream       luscious

peach goddess

There’s something Borgesian about this genre of poetry. Jorge Luis Borges was into the offbeat profound, the cosmic fortuity. In one of his stories a philosopher of an imaginary country declares that the entire visible universe is a handwriting devised by a subordinate angel to communicate with a demon. Like my refrigerator, Borges plays the border between the outlandish and the wise, the random and the revelatory.

So our kitchen poets veer into philosophy, at first with high irony in the form of lines to be chanted by phalanxes of existential fashionistas, their challenge to the absurdity of life:

iron the blow

     live like show

But at the end of existentialism a horror of reality:

stop the true

Just below, a frail plea for higher Meaning:

need place like eternity

Maybe in answer to both, a childlike evocation of the grace of small pleasures. The lines themselves are tilted jauntily up, blowing in the breeze.

wind play

         some shot

Come to think of it, that might evoke an atrocity on a summer afternoon. This interpretation sits badly with the flanking poem, where emotion reflected in tranquility becomes lapping music–

lazy beat felt still

Below, the aesthetics get more urgent:

bare moon whispers frantic raw beauty

Beside that one we find a cynical but spot-on evocation of modern politics–

repulsively we manipulate gorgeous

smear apparatus

In this profusion of mini-lyrics, every time I look at the refrigerator my attention is drawn to the shivery, X-Files implications of these lines:

our egg but

their woman

Strange as it sounds, for my part I’m sorry to report that refrigerator poetry isn’t my medium. Most of the good stuff is by friends and partygoers. By way of example, here’s my latest–

rock love ache road

     rip sky petal

Oy. It’s purple, pretentious, and as Borges would not fail to observe, the second line lapses into facile surrealist drivel. I suppose it has some of my trademark musicality, but the sentiment is vague, dithering, probably sadistic, even actionable. Forget I said it. But as for the refrigerator: Once it’s there, it stays there. That’s another rule.

I’ll take solace in the works of my betters, who give us more wisdom for this our brief sojourn: the rueful

sleep bitter blood

and the meditative

most take from moment though it must incubate

I jotted these reflections at a late hour, standing groggy before the icebox munching a bowl of my favorite British cereal, Weetabix. I’ve enjoyed it for years. What I like about Weetabix, in contrast to American cereals, is that it doesn’t even attempt to stay crunchy. The biscuits come out of the box crisp enough, but as soon as milk touches Weetabix, it turns into gelatinous goo. It’s the most existential breakfast cereal I know. Virginia Woolf wrote: “To see life as it is and love it.” This was in her suicide note (in the movie version, anyway), when her life had become unbearable. But Woolf still, in the movie, loved life as it is. Loving Weetabix as it is amounts to my answer to the superficial darkness-rebuking of iron the blow/ live like show.

But I don’t know, some people don’t like Weetabix. I’ve had heated discussions on the subject, and the affectionate resolution of such discussions is also adumbrated on my refrigerator:

was you mad

         fluff juice

I suppose the moral here is the wisdom of accepting life as it is, Weetabix as it sogs, poetry where you find it. By the way, only some time later did I realize what was going on with the poem I found scrawled on the box: “Across the miles/ Secret pal/ I call your name.” It had been a boxed selection of greeting cards, noted on the lid by the first line of each card. It was an accidental poem.

Of course poetry’s best when it comes at you from unexpected angles. Best when it’s succinct too, usually. And the best magic is the unanticipated kind. That’s when something stops you in your tracks, cereal in hand, and adheres once and for all to your mind. Adheres like like like, O secret pal, like magnetic poetry on icebox door.

PROSPECTUS FOR A BIOGRAPHY NEVER TO BE WRITTEN

 

We biographers tend to write about people who are famous, who are powerful, who may be little-known but are still extraordinary. Here I propose to tour an imaginary biography of somebody who in the usual understanding of the word was entirely ordinary. But I have opinions about that.

Some background. On the whole, biographers are professional coattail-riders. We write about famous or important or unusual people because they’re the ones readers are most likely to be interested in. Having written biographies of Brahms and Beethoven, I’m familiar with this syndrome. My own opinion, though, is that if it’s done well, a biography of anybody at all would be just as interesting as one about somebody famous or important. It’s in that context that I want to talk about the biography I won’t be writing. Its subject would be my mother’s brother, my uncle Larry.

First a couple of convictions concerning my craft. I suppose most people look at biography as a literary interpretation of somebody’s life. That’s not how I see it. Given that we can never really understand anybody else, and for that matter don’t necessarily understand ourselves all that well, it seems to me unrealistic and morally dubious to interpret somebody else’s life at a distance, for our own benefit, when they’re not around to defend themselves. I think biographers need to respect the ultimate mystery of every human being. To me a biography is a narrative of a life, not an interpretation of it. The bits of interpretation I indulge in are things that in the course of a project become to me more or less obvious. If I want to interpret somebody I’ll write an essay, not a biography–to limit the damage to my subject.

In the same way, I don’t consider biography to be a literary form. I don’t think a person’s life has a literary structure, so I don’t try to cut and shape the details of my subjects’ life into a piece of literature. Life is not like a book. It’s more like a stumble in the dark, looking for the light switch. Life is a matter of rambling themes and variations rather than of logical structure. I want my biographies to be like that, which is to say, more like life and less like a book.

I also believe that each book should in its form, its style, its tone, be in harmony with the person it’s talking about. My first biography, of American composer Charles Ives, I hope encompasses some of his wildness and eccentricity, not just in its information but in its essence. Ives was involved in music and business and politics and philosophy and baseball, all in an inimitable way. So my bio of him had three different kinds of chapters; its voluminous endnotes include an illustrative and hilarious story about my high school band and a troubling anecdote I ran across—in an old Danbury newspaper–concerning Cotton Mather.

When I came to Johannes Brahms, I found a quite different kind of person, private and guarded, a relentless craftsman who spent most of his life simply writing and performing music, frequenting brothels, and fighting with his friends. An exemplary musician’s life, really. Brahms only experienced major drama during his early 20s, when as an unknown music student he was proclaimed the coming savior of German music by Robert Schumann, after which Schumann went round the bend and was institutionalized, Brahms fell in love with his pregnant wife Clara, and so forth and so on. In other words, a mess. After that it was apparent to me that Brahms wanted no more drama in his life, and he largely managed to avoid it. That biography was straightforward. When I got to Beethoven I was extensively concerned with the craftsmanship in his music, because that craftsmanship was profound and profoundly influential on the music that followed him. There the narrative inevitably involved the daily discipline of his art in contrast to the misery and incompetence of the rest of his life.

In these terms I’ll lay out here some of my never-to-be biography of Uncle Larry, concerning its points of interest and its (non-literary) structure. For starters, then, in this one I would naturally be more intimate and interpretive than usual for me, for the reason that I knew this man as part of my family, he lived in my neighborhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (If I had watched Brahms or Beethoven walk down the street and talked to them for five minutes, I would have written different books about them.) But again: if Larry was what is called an ordinary person, I believe that when you truly know someone, nobody is ordinary. The style would be engaged but in the middle distance, the way I experienced Larry all my life: even though he lived a mile away, we didn’t spend all that much time with him. After mother threw my alcoholic father out Larry made some efforts to mentor to my brother and me, but nothing much came of it.

Larry and my mother Lucille Swafford were born to a lower-middle-class family in the town of Riceville, Tennessee, population around 300. This was red-dirt, mostly redneck South, featuring decades-long feuds, casual racism, snake-handling churches out in the woods, and buggys and dusty hoarse motorcars and hand-crank phones of 1920s vintage and my grandmother’s daily eavesdropping on the party line.

Mother and Larry’s parents were more or less middle class, with a bit of let’s call it cultural ambition. In her teens in the 1920s my mother played Mozart and Debussy on the piano along with ragtime and boogie-woogie. My maternal grandfather Lawrence, whom we called Grampie, was in his youth a whiz at math and had been offered a college scholarship. But his betrothed, my grandmother Beulah, wept nonstop for two months until he capitulated: he would not go to college, he would marry her, he would work for the post office.

Grampie held the job of rural mail deliverer for some fifty years, making his rounds first in a horse and buggy, then in a Ford Model T, then in 1947 and 1954 Fords. He gave candy to the kids on his route and was admired around town as a good and decent man. I remember that Model T, sitting in a barn for years until some hunters bought it after making sure it would hold the dogs. Grampie was a deacon in the First Baptist Church for I don’t know how long. I remember his tremulous tenor in the choir. He had an unabridged Oxford Dictionary on a special stand in the living room, and when the preacher mispronounced a word in the sermon, Grampie let him know about it. Some preachers appreciated that, some didn’t. At least one sermon was preached against his meddling. Grampie survived to see the moon landing on TV.

The family dynamic with the children was this: My mother reigned as my grandfather’s favorite. Larry was the cutup, the one who got in trouble, who started smoking at 10. None of it amounted to anything wildly rebellious. Their mother, my grandmother Beulah, the daughter of an MD who became the town drunk, was the ultimate mom, cooking half the day, raising flowers, making costumes for her children’s theatrical productions on the columned front porch, and so on. (The Swafford house looked like a miniature Tara.)

Beulah was what you’d call a piece of work. In her youth she had wanted to be an opera singer. In her 50s she quit the church choir in a huff when they told her she was singing too loud, and she rarely went to church again. To maintain her complexion, for fifty years she kept her face covered in Vaseline. When you visited, she’d come running shrieking endearments like a madwoman and cover you with greasy kisses. Mother told me that in her coffin, she had beautiful skin. When Grampie was in his 70s and succumbing to Alzheimer’s, Beulah accused him of running around with hussies and locked him in the house. The day she reached for a cereal box on the shelf and dropped dead at 84, a widow living alone, she had been making Easter eggs that nobody but her would see. Except for Larry all the Swaffords have died at 84, as I expect to.

That is what Larry came from. One story he told me says a lot about him and Grampie. When Larry was young he and Grampie used to take baths together, because in those days you had to heat a lot of water on the woodstove. One day, I figure as a joke, Grampie decreed that they would begin their bath with a bucket of cold well water poured over their bodies. In the tub, Larry stuck it out when Grampie poured the water over him. When it was his turn, Larry poured and after the first splash Grampie vaulted out of the tub and took off running naked through the house, Larry sprinting after him lugging the water. When Grampie reached the front door, his hand on the knob, Larry caught up and gave him the whole bucket. They laughed about it for the rest of their lives.

Another story Larry told me: As a teenager he took to driving to nearby Athens, another small town but big enough to have a pool hall. When Grampie found out Larry was shooting pool he said, “I’m not going to forbid you from doing it. But I want you to take a drive with me.” Grampie drove Larry to the pool hall and they stood in the back, watching the rowdy, obscene proceedings from a distance. Finally Grampie said, “Do you want to be that kind of person?” Larry didn’t. He never went back.

Above all what marked Larry’s youth was that he was marvelously and kind of strangely handsome. He looked unlike anybody else in the family. As a biographer I know that how you look can have a considerable influence on your life. In his youth Brahms was strikingly good-looking, blonde and blue-eyed, and that had something to do with the way people responded to him. Beethoven was homely and solipsistic and chronically ill, and that played its part in his life and his inability to find a wife. In later years one woman Beethoven had courted recalled simply: “He was ugly and half crazy.”

In his teens Larry played halfback on the Charleston High football team and reigned as the school heartthrob. My mother told me he averaged six calls a night from girls. (In her teens my mother Lucille was pudgy, Daddy’s girl, played violin, did not get in trouble, did not get calls from boys. Her one piece of rebellion was her marriage, and that didn’t work out so well.) But Larry’s looks were odd. He had curly black hair, big lips, an olive complexion. In my book, his singular attractiveness would begin an arc of story that has to do with the South in midcentury, and with race. This arc is not a literary construction. It played out that way.

The other thing about Larry was that he was a born tinkerer with an instinctive understanding of gadgets under his hands. Like a certain number of curious kids he would take apart the family radio. Unlike most kids, he put it back together and it still worked, and he knew why. That gift created his career as an engineer, with jobs verging on big time if never quite. My grandmother taught piano; I remember Larry pulling out her keyboard and taking it home to fix it. Piano repair was nothing he had studied. He just looked over the mechanism and figured it out.

Grampie was determined that his children would go to college. In his years at a small Methodist school Larry was not much of a student, but inevitably he was popular and became head cheerleader. When he first caught sight of Doris the homecoming queen he said to a friend, “I could fall in love with that girl like that,” and he snapped his fingers. He did fall in love with her, and she with him. In old photos from the tennis court they are a gorgeous couple, like movie stars. After college and the Army, Larry married Doris. He had spent the war working on planes in the Pacific. One day, he told me, the Enola Gay landed at his field. They knew it was doing something big, but they didn’t know what it was until they heard about Hiroshima.

After the war Larry and Doris came back to Chattanooga and he got the first of a string of good engineering jobs. They fell into what appeared to be the 1950s American dream of respectability and prosperity. I remember their living room full of matching blonde furniture and a distinctive smell of warmth and contentment. Everybody we knew in the 50s wanted to get married and have kids, to make a nice living and live in a nice house, to look good in church: to be normal.

Larry and Doris had two girls, Jeanne and Terry, who got pretty dresses and dancing and music lessons and lots of stuff. Since my home was that of a divorced schoolteacher struggling to get by, every Christmas I was painfully aware of how many more presents my cousins had under the tree than my brother and I did. Also how much nicer Larry and Doris’s house was, how much longer their driveway, how they had a big garage and a grand lawn. Every birthday I heard from my mother: “You’ll get your birthday present at Christmas.” After the opening of the Christmas presents, Larry taking photos with his fancy camera, the generations always had a big dinner in our house, presided over by Grampie. I remember Larry year after year, playing with his kids’ Christmas toys with intricate delight.

In my memory Larry in his prime is always brash, busy with his hands, building a putting green in his yard and tinkering in his garage workshop, shirtless in summer, proud of his physique. In middle age he was as handsome as in his youth, with the same grand smile. He laughed a lot, played golf (in youth he was good enough to think about going pro), told racy jokes at holiday dinners, grilled steaks every summer on the patio he built. In his later career he had a good job in a factory that made boilers for nuclear submarines. One day he showed me a part he had machined and compared it to the same part made by somebody else, explaining to me how his showed more skill, more attention to detail, more pride. That was the most enduring thing he ever said to me. He made no secret of his prejudices. When I told him I’d gotten new roommates in college his first words were, “Are they white?” One of them isn’t, I said. “I’m disappointed in you,” he said. “Don’t tell your Uncle John.” His point was that John, who in childhood was called Sweet Jan and after whom I’m named, was a bigger racist than he was.

My family was mostly racist, in the casual and unthinking way of that time in the South. But in the way of middle-class Southerners they were perfectly polite to black people. One day that politeness got Larry in trouble, as he saw it. He had told some black co-workers about his home putting green; they wanted to see it and piled in his car. I remember him knocking on the door and my Mother opening it to Larry crying, “Lucille, I’ve got six niggers in my car! What am I going to do?” I don’t remember what the solution was to this crisis of humiliation before the neighbors. A lot of how you behaved in those days concerned what the neighbors might think.

I have to skip forward now. My book would at last reach the point when it became manifest to all of us that everything to do with Larry was a crumbling wall of deception. In those days in Wasp families in the South, such things were not spoken of until they had to be. The answer to distress was generally to sweep it under the rug. Larry’s wife would have realized it first, then the kids, then my mother, then his coworkers.

I think that deception says something about the delusions of normality and respectability that marked the 50s, how superficial and hypocritical they so often were. To mention one thing, in the South of the 50s they were still lynching black people with impunity. In the seventh grade in 1958 I watched the president of the ninth grade class pulling chains out of his locker to go downtown and beat up black kids during the race riots. Meanwhile the industrial pollution in Chattanooga was so bad that on sunny days downtown in summer women’s’ stockings were known to dissolve. A friend and I used to sit on a bridge over Chickamauga Creek and watch raw sewage float downstream.

There are secrets and there are secrets. Some are harmless, some harmful only to their owner, some harmful to the people you love the most. In short, through all Larry’s respectable, laughing, family-sitting-together-in-church-on-Sunday life, there was a secret that I suspect was not spoken of until it became unavoidable: Larry was a secret and serious drinker. My cousins Jeanne and Terry told me later that neither of them could remember anything in their lives before high school. They had blanked it out because of Daddy.

In our family alcohol was anathema, not to be countenanced or anyway admitted. Larry was sly about it. He drank vodka out of the bottle, so it wouldn’t show so much on his breath. He stashed bottles all over the house and in his workshop. I remember he always smelled somehow medicinal; at night his face was red and he moved and spoke slowly. He still had the smile, for a time. His employers liked and respected Larry and kept him on as long as they could. Eventually they had to let him go.

Finally it all hit the fan. Larry crashed the car in his driveway and fractured his skull. Doris refused to deal with it, so it fell to my mother to take him to the hospital. There she watched her brother go through DTs. She thought back to their childhood, Larry the brash talented teen heartthrob. All the hope, all the fun. She told me it was the worst night of her life. And she had divorced my father mainly because he was alcoholic. I remember how Larry looked in the next years, gaunt and withdrawn, not meeting your eyes. My brother said to me once: “For all our family’s teeth-gritting attempts at respectability, we turned out quite a pack of loonies.” There was an underlying strain of fundamental decency, which mainly flowed from Grampie. Yet the family floated on a tide of lies and half-truths.

To make the long sad story short, Larry got on the wagon, fell off, in the end managed to stay sober. He never admitted he’d been alcoholic. But in his last years the big smile, the joie de vivre, the brashness and confidence were gone. He sat in his workshop making little stained glass pieces and rebuilding an old Model T. His wife and my cousins became fanatically religious. Mother said: “I feel so sorry for Larry stuck in that house full of women praying all the time.”

Then he died. Lung cancer, from the smoking. But that’s not the end of the biography. In my book the climax would come after he died.

One day not long after Larry was buried my brother and I were visiting our cousins when out of the blue Terry said to me, “Did you know that when both Jeanne and I were born, Daddy was terrified that we’d come out black?” My brother and I were thunderstruck. His widow had just walked in and I blurted, “Aunt Doris, is that true?” “Yes,” she said. “Isn’t that funny?” And she walked out.

I’ll leave it there, with the unanswered questions that moment raises. Did Larry know something about Grandmother Beulah the rest of us don’t? In childhood had he been teased about his dark complexion and big lips and curly black hair? What does all this add up to, in the relentlessly respectable, conformist, indelibly racist world of the South in the 1950s?

Which brings me to my final point. A person is made in part by his or her surroundings, so a biography is not only a portrait of a person but of a time, a place, an era, an ethos, all of them working for well and for ill on everybody. So my portrait of Larry would also be a portrait of white Anglo-Saxon America from the 1930s to the 1970s, from country to city, from lynching to marching, from horse and buggy to moon landing.

I think Larry’s story could make a nice book, a biography of a fascinating ordinary man who was felled by ordinary tragedies and by the webs his time and place snared him in. But nobody in it is famous or important, nobody would read it, and I don’t intend to write it.