Thursday, April 10, 2014

Frozen Music, the Choral Novel, Chapter Twenty-Five: The Crying Tree

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Allegro, colla voce

Somehow, it gets to be the next day, only it isn’t day yet, and yet I’m wide awake. This used to happen to me on Christmas when I was a kid. I stumble to my dresser in fuzzy gray light and grope for a notepad. Some elf from the night before has looked up Amy Fine’s address on the Westfield College Choir roster and scribbled it there. I tuck it into my wallet and head for the shower.

She lives in the Rose Garden neighborhood of San Jose, a district of elegant, aging homes on wide, tree-lined lanes, elms and maples drooping over the sidewalks in a protective hunch. I pull off the main drag into a curlicue of courts and lanes, then make the final right and there she is, 529 Calle Vista. Hers is an adorable English-style cottage, high-pitched roof, square front of clean white stucco, a clay-red path winding through low hedges to a semicircular porch. I park across the street and make my way along the sidewalk, hesitant to cross too soon lest she feel my presence. Is she up? Does it matter?

A wiry Vietnamese boy rolls by on his mountain bike and tosses a paper halfway up her path. A Siamese cat crosses the yard, then jumps behind the hedge as I approach. I pick up the paper and walk carefully to the porch, holding the headlines across my heart like a shield. Three, four seconds more and the deed is done, the bell rings, I am fully committed.

I believe it is the disheveled face of Amy Fine that appears in the crack of the door – a half-second before the door slams back, sending out shock waves. Oh well, if I’m going to be stupid, I may as well be gloriously stupid. I march up to the door, a thin coat of peeling red paint, and I knock assertively, a cop-knock. Nothing. I call out: “Amy? Amy, are you there? It’s Michael.”

Nada. I bang hard, madman-loud.

“Go home,” she says. “Go. The hell. Home.”

“Amy, I just want to talk. I know it’s early. Can we just talk?”

Her voice shoots up two octaves. “What the fuck do you want?! Just go away and leave me alone!” I hear a thump and the door ticks forward. She is leaning against it. She is upset. But she is right past this door. On the far side of four inches of wood. But I am stuck.

I continue to feed her reasons, apologies, entreaties, everything short of threatening suicide, but now she is not even answering. I turn my back to her door and sit on the porch, wondering what I can possibly do next. I’ve covered three states back and forth, and now I’m four inches short. The Siamese paces up the path and sits at my feet. I scratch him behind the ears, and he squints his eyes in pleasure.

It is then that I notice the narrowness of Amy’s street. I am close enough to the pink Victorian across the way to be in their front yard. Through a crack in the white lace curtains I spot a pair of elderly eyes, checking me for signs of trouble. A minute later, the middle-aged Mexicano next door starts loading his gear into a pickup. Great raw material here. Just the right conditions. But how to start? I tuck Amy’s newspaper under my arm and pace back and forth along the sidewalk. Something is coming in, like I am driving through a tunnel and the FM station is fading in and out.

Yes! I fling the newspaper to the ground, clear my throat, take a huge breath and let it fly:

“Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium…”

It’s the choral finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which I performed five years ago. I forget what the words mean, but I know they’re plenty loud. Amy’s neighborhood comes alive. The Mexicano freezes in his tracks. The old lady across the street stands on her porch in the universal pose of indignation, hands on hips, nose straight out, ready to call the cops. I proceed to the Turkish march variation:

“Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen, Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan…”

Two white-faced mutts point their snouts over the fence across the street and start whimpering, then barking, then howling, which rouses every dog within a half-mile radius and brings three more neighbors to their porches.

I stop. They are a chorus line in sweat pants and bathrobes. The Mexicano begins to applaud and holler, admiring the pure insanity of my performance. I spin in dizzy elation to check Amy’s door. Nothing.

I think for a second, then I take another deep breath. “O say can you see, by the dawn’s earl…”

“Stop it! Stop for Chrissake!”

Ah. There she is now. The magic red door swings open, and there stands Amy Fine, frowning under shower-wet hair as she frantically waves me into the house. “For God’s sake get in here you fucking lunatic Jesus Christ before you wake the whole goddamn…”

I scoop up Amy’s newspaper and run to the door, victorious, past Amy in her blue terry cloth robe. Amy slams the door and spins around to drop me with a right hook. A few blurry seconds later I find myself eyeballing the mottled gray carpet, rubbing a hand over what feels like somebody else’s jaw. This is not going to be as easy as I had hoped.

My vision slowly clears and I pull myself to a sitting position on her couch. Amy is facing away from me, framed by the light from the kitchen, legs shoulder-width apart, arms stretched down and tight, like she is fighting off the urge to choke some small animal.

And then she is one inch away from my face. “Just what the fuck do you think you’re doing, Michael? What the FUCK… are you DOING?”

I don’t dare lift an eyebrow. Her voice is revving up on the letter Y.

“Y… Y… You leave me in a fuckin’ cornfield for Christ’s sake, you little pissant motherfucker in a fuckin’ CORNFIELD and you fucking LEAVE me and you disappear into the mist and then you come back here and sing Ode to Joy and that makes it all better?! You’re a fucking psychopath!! I’ve lived in this neighborhood for a long time, and I happen to like it here, and now…and now…”

She grabs a hunk of hair on the back of my head and gives it a twist, holding her face against mine as she finishes her rampage in a low growl. “Just what is so goddamned… urgent that you had to get inside my house. Telllll me.”

She pushes my head to the side, pulling out a few strands as she releases. After my face rebounds from the couch, I sit there, holding my jaw in one hand, my head in the other, hoping she hasn’t broken anything. Amy seems to tire. She breathes heavily and falls back into an easy chair, hair scattered around her face, a hand over her eyes.

We sit there for what seems like hours. When my voice finally comes back, it’s wheezy and small. “I have to tell you a story. I have to tell you where I’ve been, what happened to me, what I found out…”

Amy folds her arms across her chest. Any miscue on my part could lead to further beatings, so I pick my words carefully.

“I started out that morning… after I left you… and I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I had to get somewhere, because… well, I went to Yosemite, I just sort of ended up there… and I found a rock at the river, and the rock…”

Signals. One two three one two three, tick tick tick…


I didn’t know what to think. She wanted to take me on a vacation with her to Hawaii, to make up for everything. She was getting a big tax refund, and she wanted to take me to Hawaii. Me and Stacy alone in a beachfront condo on Kauai. She talked about it all the time, every morning over coffee, yeah, just you and me, won’t it be wonderful, Michael? Oh, I love you…

She talked about Kenny, how Kenny was getting drunk almost every night and having fits and continually pushing her to sleep with him, and it was so sad, because she would do anything to help him but they had such a strong friendship, they were like brother and sister, and she wouldn’t risk that for the world, but it seemed like now she was going to lose him either way.

Two weeks later she told me she needed to cover some unexpected bills, so the vacation wouldn’t be to Hawaii, but Mendocino. And now the softball season had begun, and her friends looked at me the way you look at rotten peaches in the supermarket. This is the young undeserving one and he has entranced one of ours, and he doesn’t need her as badly as Kenny does. Kenny is in pain. They loved me on the field, but everywhere else I was on the wrong side of the story.

And then the vacation. My vacation, dammit, I had earned it, after all. She kept pushing it back. I really have to wait till the check comes, Michael. Let’s go out for dinner tonight – and then we can hear Joe sing, how’s that? Don’t worry, right after Easter, we’ll go then.

The weekend before Easter, I drove over the hill and found that she wasn’t home, and maybe I knew she wouldn’t be there for the game but I thought she would be home afterwards and maybe we could do something, shoot some pool, build a fire at the beach, make love afterwards. And my teammates kept looking at me like they knew some deep, terrible thing, and all they would tell me was that Stacy and Kenny had gone to Monterey on a camping trip, they always went camping together, no big deal, and they probably just got held up, you know how much she loves hanging out in Carmel. And I played along because I didn’t want to know. I sat in the quad outside her condo until sunset, and I thought, yeah, well, this really sucks but I’m sure she’s got a reason and she’ll give me a call tomorrow and explain, and I’ll drive over the hill for dinner. I will bring her roses, and I will have my three months of pleasure, dammit, that is what she owes me, that is what life owes me, I am in control now and all I want is three months.

And her voice on the phone that night, pregnant with trouble.

“I’m sorry, Michael, I’m sorry I couldn’t be around today, but… Michael, I have something to tell you. Kenny and me, well, we camped out at the beach last night, and we had a little too much to drink, and one thing sort of just led to another and things… just… happened.”

Tick tick tick…

The world stopped. The ticking began in my head and the world just stopped, I had no conductor to wave off the fermata and get me going, and all I could ask was, How could one human being do this to another human being? The whole thing smelled of conspiracy. Why pull me back after I was over you just so you could do this to me? You are a special kind of evil. You are a self-absorbed, clueless bitch, who thinks the fucking bottle is her excuse for everything. Well who poured that shit into your mouth? You did.

I tried to call a friend. He wasn’t home. It was late. I left the house to take a walk. My housemate saw me heading out, saw my glazed eyes and asked if I was okay. She told me not to do anything foolish. Her pity only made me feel smaller.

I stumbled to the park, counting my steps over the sidewalks and curbs. The waves of my sobbing reached into my legs and made it hard to walk, but I kept on. My eyes filled with warmth, my nose with moisture, my face swelled against the chill night air. The world in front of me grew more and more distant, and I thought, Remember this. You will need this later.

When I reached the park, I slumped past the tennis courts and the barbecue pits, up the low mounds of grass to the field, where I found my favorite tree, a silk oak I would lean against while I read novels in the early evenings. I knelt beside it and hung my arms around its torso, letting the rough bark scratch my cheek. Take careful note of these tears, don’t ever be this stupid again. Remember where the salt settles across your face, where it burns, and the tears falling into the roots and the wine-smelling soil and hoping I wouldn’t use up all the water in my body. And feeling like I wanted to die.

When I finish the story, I begin to cry for the first time since, and this is the feeling I remember, buried in the furrows of a terry cloth robe, the world smelling of Amy Fine’s hair and her sweet shower-soap dampness. But the tears will not cut my skin this time, and they will not sap the moisture from my body. They will only break through the stone, open up the cracks, and ready the land for rain.

Photo by MJV

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