ALL THE LIVING
©2016 by Joseph Kenyon
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Mill City Press in 2016
All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
The Library of Congress has cataloged this Mill City Press edition as follows:
Interior design and layout by Daniel Snyder
Cover design by Brian Fell
“Autumn field” by Jennifer Terranella. All rights reserved.
“Piano” by PhotoSpin
Publisher website: www.millcitypublishing.com
Author website: www.bookmakersediting.com
Published in the United States of America
Dusk. Mist. Perfect for this night. The way the fog haloed the streetlights, diffusing their beams, sending them drifting to the sidewalk like feathers. The union of mist and dusk gave everything a gritty intensity, blurring the edges between the light and the darkness. The coarse, damp, swirling air. The decrepit neighborhood. Anticipation. All whisked together into the moment. It was the kind of night Autumn would choose to bring a society into the world.
For as long as she could remember, she wanted to feel at the center of something, at the heart of a thing larger than life, and from the moment last spring when Gaston and Lyle first suggested forming a society, she latched onto the idea as that thing. This was the night to carve out a niche: the six of them moving forward into the unknown with only artistic skill to cut the way. Too romantic or dreamy a thought? Well, screw realism. The world was too coldly realistic. Let passion hold sway.
She walked past the shrouded houses and the vacant lots that divided the residential section of Prue from “The Roughie”: a three block strip of bars, dingy diners, and sagging buildings rented out to art students as studios by college-town landlords. The area had become a student haven almost from the moment the North American University of Fine Arts — or NAUFA — opened its doors. Here the air was always intense, the byproduct of ruin and rot.
Signs had no reason for being here, another plus in Autumn’s mind. If you didn’t know where you were going, you didn’t belong here. Like the Lick and Poke. Just a plain brown door set a yard inside a plum-colored stone façade with blurred neon signs burning behind glass blocks. Autumn went in and steered past the bar and its huddled crowd of drinkers, heading down the corridor to the back room. Chet, Lyle, and Mary occupied a table to the side of the empty stage, and when she sat down, Chet tossed a copy of the Artisan, the campus newspaper, onto the middle of the table. Hands outstretched, beer foaming over the lip of his mug, he said, “If we’re raising a secret society, why is word of the initiation rite splashed about in this rag?”
Autumn picked up the paper.
“Third item from the top, second column,” said Chet.
“The initiation rite of Société de l’Esprit Artistique will be held on Friday, 21 September 1999, nine o’clock p.m. Nothing’s splashed. It’s a quiet announcement. So people know we exist.”
“Why do we want them to know?”
“What good would it do to form a society that no one knows exists?” Autumn caught the eye of a waitress and lifted Lyle’s mug.
“I may only be an illiterate painter, and Mary, as our writer-in-residence, may correct me if I’m wrong, but ‘secret’ means something no one else knows about, doesn’t it?”
“Not in this case,” said Lyle. “We’re not talking about forming an order like the Golden Dawn. We want an artistic society in the German Romantic mold. They were called “secret societies” because not anyone could join, and the works created by the members went public first under the name of the society, not the individual. Only later, when the societies disbanded or the members reached a certain level of recognition, did the works get individual attention. Groups of that sort were known all over Europe. Anyhow, patrons of the day were aware of them. We’re going to want people to know us in the same way, and, for that to happen, they have to know we exist. Pique their curiosity.”
Chet grunted and gulped at his beer. “Where the hell’s Gaston? What’s his take on all this?”
“He was going to Montreal earlier today,” Lyle said. “Maybe he got held up. He wanted to do a little research on the rituals and things that societies performed.”
“So, there are five of us, right?” Chet asked. “The four of us and Gaston?”
“Don’t forget Patrick,” Mary said, picking up the paper and re-reading the announcement. “He can’t shut up about this Society; he’s so excited.”
“And you’re not?” Autumn asked.
Mary shrugged. “I don’t get the same charge out of it that all of you seem to, but it’s okay.”
Autumn felt the anger rise up through her chest to her throat. So, Mary wasn’t excited about the Society. No surprise there. Mary Han was like the good part of Prue and the University: she had to project the appropriate image; she was attending an art school, so she had to be an artist of some sort. Mary only comprehended the beauty of the surface because that was her plane of existence, what she valued: a delicate-as-scrimshaw posture; two brown, Chinese-American shaped dollops for eyes; and skin, as well as poetry, that was as soft and powdery as flour. She wasn’t like others in the group, not made of the same artistic stuff, bred from the same artistic bones. They were, to borrow Lyle’s term, Romantics – in different ways: Gaston — genius in its purest form; Lyle — the living incarnation of the Peanuts character Schroeder; Chet — stoutly devoted to his paints and his pints. Then there was this Patrick Mallard person. Who the hell was he other than Mary’s lover?
Chet and Lyle turned the conversation into a debate over what the Society’s rituals should be, and Mary waved them into a pause. “All this talk about rites and dark rooms and stuff sounds so weird and cliche-ish,” she said. “It doesn’t have feeling.”
“But that’s what we’re trying to get,” Lyle said. “A feeling, a sense that we belong to a bonded group. All societies had ritual.”
“Maybe back in the Middle Ages, but not today. All that stuff just gets in the way of creating.”
“How so?” Chet asked.
“Well, look. You say you want us to work on things, write and paint things. Well, if we spend all our time doing this hocus-pocus kind of stuff, then we have to get back in a creative frame of mind afterward. The rituals just take us out of the mood we have to be in to create.”
Lyle pointed his finger at Mary. “That’s it, right there. That’s why we’re debating. We want to come up with a ritual to enhance that mood, not destroy it.”
“I just don’t see the point of it. If you want to create a mood, put on a song. This occult stuff just isn’t real. I like to write about real things, things that make a person feel something, an emotion, like … love for instance.”
“Then,” said Autumn, “maybe you should write about being in love with yourself. Call it ‘To Stroking — An Ode.’” She gave the comment time to settle in on everyone at the table. “Oh, I’m sorry. You said you wanted to write about something that would make you feel. My mistake.”
Mary went stiff, and Chet wagged his finger toward Autumn. “Temper, temper, Autumn-girl. Let’s keep our tongues a bit more dull, shall we? This is an important meeting.”
“Yeah, so damn important that Gaston can’t even show up. And where’s this gung-ho Patrick I keep hearing about? If he’s so excited, why hasn’t he hauled his golden ass down here? In his place we have Mary Poppins who doesn’t even know what a society is let alone want to be a part of one.” She gulped the rest of the beer and slammed the glass down on the table. “Forget it. We can’t do this until we’re all here and we’re all into it, and it pisses me off that we’re not. I’m going home.”
“Autumn …” Lyle started.
“No, don’t ‘Autumn’ me. When everyone’s ready to do this thing right, when everyone’s serious about what’s going on, you let me know!”
The anger followed her out of the bar and nagged her all the way up Bloom Street to the apartment. She went in, undressed, and got into bed. Why was Mary with the group if she hated what societies involved? Why did everyone put up with such casual attitudes? Didn’t anyone else see what this Society could be? Didn’t they care as much as she did? Why did she care so much about any of it? And how did she get like this? The questions circled around her brain until the anger spun away. She dozed off into an uneasy sleep until a tapping from across the room snapped her out of it. She raised her head off the pillow as the bedroom door creaked open, and Lyle’s head appeared in the dim crack of light. “Is it safe?”
He stepped inside and closed the door quietly. “You’re in bed? At least you’ll be rested for the first day of classes.”
“Dammit! I forgot to set my alarm.”
“What time’s your first class?”
“I see. And you forgot to set your alarm because you were riddled with guilt about the way you acted tonight, right? You made Mary cry, you know.”
“Good. She’s damn lucky I didn’t tear what passes for her tacky heart right out of her chest. ‘Writer-in-residence.’ What a load of crap.”
Lyle took a seat on the corner of the bed. “So, she’s not Wordsworth, but she’s not bad. She had some suggestions about a libretto I’m working on, and the stuff she wrote is pretty good.”
“I’ll be sure to get her autograph when it’s performed.”
“The point is we better all try to get along. In a little more than two weeks we’ll be Society fellows. Speaking of which, you should’ve hung around a little bit longer and saved yourself — and all of us — a taste of your rage. Gaston showed up about a half an hour after you left, and we got some things settled.”
“You want to climb on in under the covers and tell me?”
“Please! You’re speaking to the monk of the group, appointed by Gaston to be the keeper of the instrument of initiation for Société de l’Esprit Artistique.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Ah, that’s privileged information, not to be discussed with every harlot who invites you into her bed. Anyway Gaston drove me over here to pick up some piano string he got for me, and I thought I’d see if you’d calmed down any.”
“Well then, since my mission’s accomplished, I’ll go.”
“You’re sure you wouldn’t rather stay with me?”
“My first class is at nine tomorrow, sorry.”
He went, but Autumn couldn’t go back to sleep. She focused on the shaft of light coming into the room through the thin space between the door and the doorpost, then on the steady stream of aimless guitar chords. She got up, threw on a man’s extra-large, flannel shirt and traced the sound to the living room.
Gaston sat on the wide wooden bench built into the bay window, one foot braced against the far frame, the other leg swaying like a metronome. The washed out light from the street lamp brushed across him, occasionally flashing off the bobbing tuning knobs. He managed to gather the random notes into something coherent, and the sound changed, becoming Irish and light, like a fairy dance. Autumn took a seat on the couch and listened as he repeated the complex passage more smoothly.
“What’s that you’re playing?”
“It’s called Epona. Patrick showed it to me one night while you were back in Pittsburgh.”
“Over the summer?”
He nodded. “Probably about a month ago. I’d forgotten about it ‘til now.”
“You’re playing a song filled with sub-rhythms and quick changes after only hearing it once a month ago?”
“It’s not as hard as it sounds. Get your guitar and try it.”
“It’s not hard for you, but I’ll try it for an hour and not get the opening bars right. Then I’ll get so pissed off I’ll end up pushing you out the window, and I can’t afford the rent for this place by myself. No thanks.”
He shrugged and retreated back into his space – this state that only he knew how to reach. When they first met, Autumn suspected him of retreating there to get beyond the reach of everyone. But he insisted that he didn’t “go” anywhere, that his level of concentration didn’t differ from the concentration every good musician employed. He had always been that sort of man: a genius of creativity who was truly convinced that he was average and that everyone could do what he did. But he had never been average. She remembered listening to him play in the clubs and bars on Pittsburgh’s Southside, watching him take requests for an hour — everything from jazz to blues to rock — and play each one flawlessly. Then later, when she first came to stay with him, they worked out this game of musical Bonnie and Clyde: she would cajole club-goers into betting her that Gaston could play any song they named. Classical pieces, show tunes, dusty big band songs poured out of his guitar. They never lost. They ate with that money. He was nineteen; she, eighteen.
No wonder she had fallen in love with him then, this genius whose music she heard in her head while they made love. Five years later she was still in love with him, maybe more so because he had the good sense even that young, to end the affair. She winced at that word; it really wasn’t right. “Affair” made their relationship sound equal when their coupling had all the equality of a 72-0 football score. She had been more like his number-one groupie. Once the relationship ended and the friendship began, the gap between them narrowed, and she gladly settled for that. She had too much ego to take another crack at a relationship with a genius.
Gaston never batted an eye when Lyle brought up the idea about going to NAUFA. She hesitated, not having exactly been an academic genius in high school. But Gaston simply said, “Sounds cool,” and came along. While she attended the university, he pulled in the money by playing in clubs, sometimes locally, but most often in Montreal.
Despite their history together, she never quite made it into his space. She understood that place to be a perfect pocket of deep passion for him, a place that he searched for in bits and pieces in the real world. Within a month of coming to upstate New York, he found a chunk of that place in Montreal. Within a year he had mastered Canadian French, mastered the musical styles of the Québécois, and fled to the city as often as he could. When he couldn’t be there, he brought the nexus of Montreal back to Prue in little ways, such as insisting that the Society be known by the French version of its name. That intermingling of his space and his world served as a conduit and a governor for the incredible passion that lay like an aquifer in the man. He remained the only person, place or thing in the world that made her feel wide-eyed and in awe.
“You hungry?” she asked.
“Okay, so what’ll it be? Do I make a midnight breakfast for two or push you out that window?”
“Eggs’ll be cool, if you’re up to it.”
The fall term began on a day as fine as Quinn Gravesend could hope for in early September: a crisp blue sky and a steady breeze that had the trees shaking their leaves like they were laughing in places. The air moving into the classroom through the window had lost the wilted, sense-dulling feel that comes with the sultriness of summer, and, instead, it marched in with a fresh snap. This was the way the first day of the term should be: a day of no surprises, the kind of day where one could find excitement in the anticipation of knowing that what is expected is right on schedule.
Gravesend stood at the window near the head of the class, his back to the door. Students filed in behind him, and he felt first their eyes and then their thoughts probing the fact that he was not expected to be standing at the window ten minutes before the start of class. They’ll grow accustomed to it. He smiled and amended his previous thought: the first day of the term should not hold surprises for a member of the faculty. Students, however, should find surprise in ready quantities.
There came the last burst of commotion as the stragglers and the fashionably-late took their seats. Still, Gravesend didn’t move from the window; he waited until the room became quiet. Nothing measures the mettle of a class as the length of time it takes them to notice the professor is waiting for them to hush. It was an old-fashioned method, and granted, in this day and age when collegiate manners and protocol had gone the way of the turntable and the record album, perhaps the method wasn’t quite as accurate as it once had been. Still, it worked.
This class settled rather quickly. With an expected rush of anticipation, Gravesend left the window and the waving trees and strolled to the lectern resting on the front desk. There he raised his head for his first view of the group. There were twelve: fresh student faces like eggs in a carton awaiting painting for Easter before being laid out for the hunt. Every semester they came to be made in this way, their faces holding the same expression. Only their clothes changed. This group consisted of tie-dyes, rugby shirts, jeans, a ruffled blouse, and three unkempt fashions lumped, Gravesend supposed, in the modern style he still thought of as “grunge.” Standard wrapping for standard packages, the products of two years of a good undergraduate education in the rudiments and technology of composing music.
Gravesend leaned forward, elbows resting on the chipped, wood veneer box and smiled an expectant smile. A colleague once defended the practice of lecturing with his eyes closed by saying that after twenty years very little remained to be seen. Gravesend saw it another way: a professor is poorer for sailing through the first day of the term blind. The best part of the semester is that first day, cracking and freeing those eggs made from the shelled conformity of their earlier education. No, the first class of the term was the one class that was too good to miss.
He took a deep breath. “The composition of music is a hunt for a mythical beast. Therefore, I want you to tell me all that you know about hunting mythical beasts.”
The first cracks appeared in several egg faces. Two of the more anal students made worried checks of their schedules to be sure they were in the correct classroom. Gravesend looked directly into the eyes of the sole student in the front row, the young woman in the pristine ruffled blouse with the starched brown eyes to match.
“Green. Charlotte Green.”
“Ms. Green, what do you know about hunting mythical beasts?”
“Well, you’d have to be pretty imaginative for one thing.” Her answer drew laughs from several people in the room. Gravesend was impressed. Perhaps this group wasn’t as dull as it looked.
“Very well said, Ms. Green, and correct. But please, add to that answer that one must also be prepared — for anything.”
As if on cue, every student opened a notebook and jotted down a note. The note. If anything were to doom education specifically and thinking in general it would be this endless fascination with note taking. Jotters, Gravesend called them, diseased to the point of delusion. As if they could transcribe meaning by scribbling. More often than not, the jotters missed the whole tenor of the lecture. He wasn’t about to let this group stain with ink the keen edge Ms. Green just showed. He came out from behind the lectern and leaned against the edge of the desk, not a yard from the first row of seats.
“Be prepared. The motto of the Boy Scouts and the most useful advice a person can take to heart. You have all come up through the ranks of the music program. How many of you feel prepared for this class?”
Several students raised their hands. Others, sensing the trap, remained still.
“Prepared for what? The ancient hunter, about to embark on the chase after his not-so-mythical beast, certainly had his tools ready: weapons, butchery utensils, supplies, water. Much like that hunter from ancient times, you sit here before me today, prepared. You are armed with your knowledge, your skill, and your endless hours of practice on various instruments. You no doubt could pass an exam on the compositional techniques of composers ranging from Mozart to McCartney with flying colors. But is that all it takes?
“The ancient hunter’s preparation was not limited to the gathering of tools, but it included the ritual to gather the spirit. A hunt was more than a search for food; it was a spiritual undertaking, and every step in that hunt had a higher meaning that carried nearly impossible stakes. ‘All well and good,’ you are saying to yourselves right now. ‘I’ll remember that, Mr. Gravesend, if I have to answer an anthropology question on Jeopardy tonight.’ If words to that effect have passed through your head in the last five minutes,” a sweeping glance revealed some startled faces, “then I suggest you think with a bit more depth.
“No doubt, your compositional theory courses have supplied you with all the physical tools you will need to engage in your own personal hunt for that mythical beast we call music. But in this course, Philosophy of Composition, we will explore the spiritual side of the hunt. The ritual.”
Gravesend was making some headway against the jotters. Two particularly dogged students were still writing; most, however, had given up. A few even looked interested. He left the desk and plunged into the middle of the room, coming to a halt between the two jotters. Ms. Green and another student near the front turned their heads to follow him with their eyes. Everyone else, including the two pillars of note taking, froze.
“The first question becomes, then, what is meant by these metaphors: mythical beast? spiritual side? ritual? Mythical beast, I have already defined for you; it is your music, your own creations, the anima alive inside your breast, usually forced into the more common appellation: potential. You are at once the hunter and the beast. The beast must be flushed out before it can be slain. So too, the music must be wrenched out of you before it can be composed. Thus, the metaphor. Now, what is meant by the metaphor implied by the word ritual?”
Tapered fingers appeared at the head of the row, waving like a flag of torn flesh on the corner of the lectern.
“Yes, Ms. Green.”
“Ritual would be how we call out the beast, how we get the music out.”
“In order to …?”
Her fingers fluttered in mid-air, groping for the answer not coming into her head. Gravesend made his way back to the front of the class and turned to her with deliberate confidence that the correct answer would be forthcoming. He held her in his gaze until the muscles in her face began to quiver. The mind is a muscle as well, Gravesend thought; it must be broken down in order to rebuild it as a stronger and wiser mass.
“Much of what we do is ritual, yet to what end?” He resumed his posture against the edge of the desk and gazed up at the ceiling, stroking the short, white bristles of beard on his chin, beginning his mental count to thirty … his allotment of time for the class to dwell on any question before receiving another prod.
But a voice from the back of the room broke his count at nine. “The end would be unlocking the soul, which is what ritual does. So, the metaphor states that in order to search for the music inside us and to bring it out, we need to look into our souls, or our spiritual side, as you called it.”
Gravesend stopped mid-stroke and directed his gaze toward the back of the room. “Mr. …?”
“Mr. Glasser,” he repeated, making a mental note to be aware of this fellow; he was a sharp one, more so because Gravesend hadn’t marked him as sharp in his opening estimate of the class. Sleepers appear not to be sharp, but more often than not Gravesend picked them out. But he had passed over this student, one of the rugby-shirters. He returned Gravesend’s gaze with an impassive expression but an intensity that was magnified by round, wire-rimmed glasses.
“Excellent, Mr. Glasser. That’s exactly what we will be doing in this class: probing our souls and discovering what beasts lurk therein. And, if we’re lucky, we may discover a few ways to lure the beast out into the open where it can be handled through music. At any rate, we’ll be taking our first steps on that hunt. When you come to class on Thursday, I want each of you to submit a cassette tape on which you’ll have recorded a musical interpretation of your soul.”
There was a long silence, then a flurry of questions:
“What specific type of music?”
Gravesend fended off the blows with upraised hands. “Far be it for me to put limitations on your soul-searching. That’s the province of your minds and hearts, not mine. All I ask is that you put your name on your tape, purely for reasons of return. That’s all. Good day to you!”
He swept out of the room, letting the door swish shut behind him. An exhilarated breath escaped his lips. The first class of the semester was always the peak of the mountain, especially as he got older. And Gravesend felt old indeed. It would be a long descent toward Christmas, but now he looked forward to his office and a cup of tea.
Mrs. Bourgione, the Music faculty secretary, handed Gravesend a note as soon as he came through the door. “Dean Oughterard called a moment ago. He wants to see you as soon as you can make it, so don’t get comfortable.”
“Did he mention what he wanted?”
“No, but he made the call himself, and he had a sweet sound in his voice.”
Gravesend groaned, and he kept at it inwardly as he made his way down to the first floor and the office marked Dean of the School of Music. After the requisite delay by the secretary, he was ushered into the spacious office wrapped in glass on two sides for the view, then covered with insipid plastic blinds to obstruct the same view.
Dean Oughterard was a slight man whose attempts at informality consisted of wearing plaid ties rather than solids with his conservative suits. He doled out his Deanship from behind his desk with the traditional range of expressions: from corporate-firm in debate to piously apologetic when in need of a favor. Gravesend knew the university chain of command well enough to understand that deans were often caught in the verbal crossfire between senior administrators and faculty. Deans fell in the middle, having to endure the complaints of both sides, and the result was a group of ear-strained, academic orphans. For this visit, Oughterard assumed an apologetic expression with a hint of desperation, and it was the latter that Gravesend feared most.
“I took a call this morning that concerned you, Quinn.”
“A student or parent is complaining already?”
“Nothing that easily dismissed. The call came from Antoinette D’Abonne. It seems the Home Society is gearing up for its visiting season, and your house is on the top of the list. Congratulations.” The Dean lowered his head and raised his hand. “Before you say anything, let me state that I did everything in my power to get you off the hook again. But Madame D’Abonne has had your house marked for the past few years, and I’ve somehow managed to steer her away from you. This time she just wouldn’t be deterred. At the first sign of resistance from me, she played her trump card, dropping dark hints about slamming the lid of her late husband’s substantial coffer on the hand of the School of Music.”
“What possible reason does that woman have to be interested in my house of all places? There isn’t anything spectacular about it.”
“On the contrary. It’s a beautiful home. And, even if it were a two-room box, it contains a mystery.”
“An article about you that mentioned a room you haven’t entered since you composed your last piece.”
“That article was published in 1980! Julia had died just a few years before that. Does Madame D’Abonne think people’s lives don’t change? That a person would stay out of any room in his own home for nineteen years?”
“So, you do use that room? It’ll open for the tour?”
Gravesend shifted his jaw back and forth. “That’s beside the point.”
“No, Quinn, that’s exactly the point. It’s that kind of trivial mystery that would keep Madame D’Abonne’s interest fired for nearly two decades. And finally, if your home didn’t have a mystery room, if it didn’t have anything else, it has you, Quinn. And in a town of so many successful artists who teach here, you are the crown jewel.”
“Spare me your flattery, please.”
“That isn’t flattery; it’s truth. Modesty aside, you’re the most influential composer of classical music in the last half of the century. Period.”
“I haven’t composed a piece of music since the 1970s.”
“That makes no difference. In the eyes of the Antoinette D’Abonnes of the world, you rank supreme.”
“Eyes! You don’t know how right you are! The last thing I want or need is to host a dinner party for a group of pseudo-social voyeurs who get their jollies by pushing their noses into other people’s closets and discussing what they see for an age afterward! How could you agree to setting such people on me? They want a mystery? Why not investigate what happened to that art professor, Shero Bosellini, when he disappeared back in the 70s?”
The desperation in the Dean’s expression became more pronounced. “They’ll never find an answer to that and besides, Bosellini kept a lousy house. Look, I agreed because the whole affair will endear the School of Music to this University’s most generous benefactor, and that endears the School of Music to the Chancellor.”
“This all belongs in the School of Dance, you know.” Gravesend rose. “Of one thing you can be sure: neither D’Abonne nor any of her social chippies are getting a look at any room I wish to keep closed. I won’t have my private life open to public debate.”
“There’s no reason why you should. Here’s the guest list she faxed over.” He handed Gravesend a piece of paper.
“Your name is here.”
“Yes, at my insistence. It’s the least I could do. You shouldn’t be stuck with shouldering the burden of hosting this alone.” His voice dropped to the level of an undertaker. “If I may touch on a sensitive subject for a moment, will this be the first gathering at your home since Julia passed away?”
Gravesend nodded. “With all good luck, it will also be the last.”
“Drinks at six then, on Friday the 21st, followed by dinner and a tour of the house. It won’t be so bad, Quinn.”
That phrase – “It won’t be so bad, Quinn” – skipped around his brain throughout the day, tagging along on his evening walk. He reached the mid-point – a grassy hillock crowned by a stone nearly twice his height and set in the center of the summit – and stepped around the stone. The St. Lawrence River came into view. As a rule, he only paused here for a quick view and a breather, but the Dean’s words had changed to music: two different musical sequences bending together to meet, harmonize, and create a perfect circle. Notes gathered to the theme of completion and emptiness in his head, swirling and then dying, like the lonely silence in a recently deserted ballroom.
He leaned against the monolith, warm with the heat of the afternoon sun. The notes slowed in tempo and became regal. Images followed, images of the stone as an ancient boundary mark and the river as the border of unknown lands beyond. Quite a metaphor for life, thought Gravesend, even his own life. If he turned and looked back at his life, what would he see? A good life, one that afforded him a place at the top by any measurement one would care to use: age, accomplishment, stature, money. Indeed, his was a tall life.
The notes changed with the last thought, becoming dirge-like, as if playing for all the dying things he saw giving way at the moment. The day. His summer routine. His life, so much closer to its coda than its overture. And yet, somewhere behind the somber and funereal notes, he discerned another sound, a very faint but pervasive note of joy. It was jarring and off-kilter, like laughter in a funeral home filled with mourners. Laughter that was entirely inappropriate and socially embarrassing, and yet, beneath that, refreshing and relieving.
The sense of completion stayed a steady course through the fleeting musical notes and unbidden images. The sense of being inside a circle around this time and place in his life intrigued him. What enabled this walk, such a routine act in his day, to trigger the sense of being on the brink of a critical point in life? Never before had he heard the epiphanic voices that seem to make occasional visits to everyone’s ears and whisper that life was about to radically change course. When he composed the first notes of The Julia Suite — indeed, when he first talked with Julia — he heard no notes to clue him into how that composition and that woman would grip and frame his life. When he first read the newspaper accounts of the plans to construct the North American University of Fine Arts, he sensed nothing that would have given him an inkling to how linked he was to become to the school. He did realize that his life would change at the moment the doctor announced that Julia’s cancer was beyond cure, but only a fool wouldn’t recognize such a life-shifting event as that.
The notes in his head faded off one by one until only a single sound remained: a B note played very high up on the scale, tapped out consistently in mezzo piano. He knew the note, recognized it from two decades ago when one of his composition students suggested he listen to a Pink Floyd piece entitled Echoes. The work opened on that note and in the very same way he felt it playing in his head now, unwavering, like a lighthouse. A perfect beginning, he had thought. That’s what he told the student, adding that the note remained the only worthwhile thing he found in that backwash of noise the student had called “musical composition at its most innovative.”
“Good,” Gravesend thought, “I recognize the note and have a feeling that I’m headed for a radical change in life. Bloody well wonderful. But why now? And what does the sensation demand I do about it? Seek a major life change? Ridiculous. One cannot go about making a life change. Laying that aside for a moment, I went through an irrevocable life change when Julia died. No sensation, no matter how strong, will change that.”
He watched the river flow by, thinking that he could retire. Every spring he decided to retire, then changed his mind sometime around the end of term. This early in September the thought became appealing again as he spied out the school year from the long end, but a sense of duty always suppressed the notion. Although the thought of rocking Oughterard’s this-is-best-because-I-know-best expression with a retirement announcement effective January 1 brought Gravesend a moment of delicious enjoyment, the Canadian in him vetoed such an act. It would not be fair or appropriate.
He could compose again. Perhaps begin a new work to fit this new feeling or time? No. He was done with that, or rather, composing was done with him. A twenty-three-year-old iron is too cold to strike. The notes in his head had nothing to do with actual compositions. They were the same notes that he had always heard and felt in response to everything he perceived from the time he was a boy: a sort of sixth sense, interpreting both the seen and the intuitive world via music. Random notes came to him in his younger days as the musical potential in every animate and inanimate facet of life. They remained, aged like him, until they sounded like mocking shadows, ghosts of notes that could have, at one time, perhaps been collected and collated into a composition but now would never see a score.
The best course of action, Gravesend decided, was to let the note and the sounds be. He had no idea what purpose they intended, if they had any purpose at all, and he wasn’t likely to reach home before dark if he didn’t start walking very soon.
He disengaged himself from the stone with a lurch, causing a sharp pain to shoot up his back. Sixty-three was not a pliable, stone-leaning age, but thank God it wasn’t a macho one either. He didn’t have to care what others thought of his manhood. He could hobble if he liked, and so he did, down the hill toward home, thinking of dinner and an early bedtime with a good book. B notes be dammed.
Night on the 21st came late with the sun bleeding in pink, orange and red hues all along the horizon. Wind moved in off the river in wavy rushes rattling by the window of Lyle’s studio apartment, a third floor attic in an old house. The decor inside stood in counterpoint to the changing weather outside. Four candelabra with six candles each threw out the majority of the light from their perches around the room: atop the grand piano, on the shelf below the window, on the wire and blotter rack that served as a night stand, and on the stove in the kitchenette. Inside and outside, Autumn approved.
Everyone had dressed with some sort of distinction. Behind the piano sat Lyle in formal wear, complete with white gloves and tails, his face moving in and out of shadows so that it never was completely revealed or hidden. He tinkered with the piano keys, mixing together ethereal sounds. Beside him stood Gaston in a long brown robe with a monstrous hood that covered the whole of his head and shaded all of his face but his chin. He had come in character: Gaston the father-confessor, the shaman-priest. Chet rested on the page-turner’s seat to Lyle’s right, his burly frame slung with paint-spattered jeans and sweater; even his canvas sneakers were globbed with paint dribbles. Mary and a tall, wiry man with an English accent and a cloth bag stood beside the piano. Both of them were dressed in black turtlenecks and jeans.
And Autumn, standing apart from the group at the piano caught a glimpse of herself in the room’s only mirror and declared herself in sync with the spirit and the sense of the room. The effect she wanted was sylvan: a draping, cape-like top of hunter green, edged in lace that hung like leaves from her sleeves. Tight green leggings ran up beneath the cape and down into black, high-heeled boots. The curls of her hair spilled down between her shoulder blades and under the influence of the guttering golden glow of the candles, the auburn shade deepened to the color of wine.
She moved in closer to the piano as Chet said to Mary, “You and your friend chose the right color for the occasion. This place looks like a morgue on Halloween.”
The man offered his hand. “Patrick Mallard.”
“Chet Kunzler. And if there’s a bottle in that bag, you’ll be my friend, too.” He nooked open a corner of the bag and peered in. “Champagne? Ah! May I call you Pat?”
Lyle kept repeating the phrase he was playing in an attempt to find an exit. Unable to do so, he softened the bars with each run, hoping to fade them out of existence. Finally at a signal from Gaston, he just stopped and swiveled around. “Okay. So, what’s next?”
Gaston set the candelabrum on the piano beside several note cards and a gold-plated paten. “Time to start. I’ll conduct. Lyle, you’ll assist. Could all of you move around to form a half circle in front of me?”
When they were in position, Gaston took up the pile of cards and consulted the first one. “I’ll begin with a quote from C. Kerenyi’s essay entitled Prolegomena: If cosmos is understood in the Greek sense that everything spiritual, and our compulsion towards the spiritual, are an essential part of the cosmos, then here,” he paused and made eye contact with each person in front of him, “we have the cosmos meeting with itself.”
Gaston shuffled to the next card. “Now, I’ll read a description of our purpose, as written by candidate for membership, Lyle Glasser: All of us came to this university to learn and advance our skills in our chosen arts. That’s what the studies, professors, and performances are meant to do. But there’s another quality to art that seems to have been lost to the mechanics of education. It goes beyond our physical talents to an awareness of and marriage to the spirit behind art, the mystical presence attending the creation of every composition. The Romantics, because of their very nature, were keenly aware of this presence, and they formed societies to draw the spirit of art closer to the surface so that it was there beside them as they composed and critiqued what each of them was striving to create. That is our purpose, to bring our artistic selves into closer contact with the spirit of art and assist in each other’s creations. Rituals, such as this initiation rite, do that. We share a communion with the past and the future, a communion of who we are and what we have committed ourselves to doing.”
Gaston raised his hand with the palm outward. “Therefore, here in this room, on the 21st of September, in the year 1999, I declare the formation of Société de l’Esprit Artistique: to advance the growth of each member in the art of his or her choice, to encourage and draw from each other’s raw inspirations and ideas in order to mold and create living works, and to realize our artistic role as the bridge between the unseen and the visible.”
Gaston flipped to the next card. “The next step is the recitation of the litany to reaffirm the principles that will guide the Society. Respond ‘Aye’ to each phrase. Do you wish to be initiated into Société de l’Esprit Artistique?”
“You are then charged with advancing each member’s work through the sharing of thought and spirit. Do you make such an oath by seeking initiation still?”
“You are charged with sharing yourself and your work with the Société and promoting those works under its name during membership. Do you make such an oath by seeking initiation still?”
“You are charged with not revealing the membership, the inner workings of the Société and its members’ discussions, works in progress, or ideas to any who have not been initiated. Do you make such an oath by seeking initiation still?”
“As all present have sworn themselves to the principles of the Société, let the initiation passage begin.”
Gaston placed the note cards on the piano and motioned for Lyle to take up the candle as he lifted the paten and stamp. He pulled back his hood, revealing his face for the first time. “As the Ovate of Société de l’Esprit Artistique, I declare that I seek initiation still and accept the sign of the Society and creativity.” Lyle poured some of the wax onto the paten. Gaston dipped the stamp in the wax and immediately applied it to his forehead. He removed the stamp, leaving a wax impression of the crescent moon on his skin. Then he pulled the hood forward, and his face disappeared in its folds.
“Lyle Thomas Glasser.” Lyle moved in front of him. “Seek you initiation still?”
“Then accept the sign of the Society and creativity.” The wax poured, Gaston set the stamp to Lyle’s forehead, after which, Lyle resumed his place beside Gaston, who called the rest of them forward:
“Autumn Seanna Gilhain.”
“Patrick Stuart Mallard.”
Patrick stood nearly six inches taller than Gaston, and when he bent to accept the mark, Autumn did a double-take. Was it her imagination or did he genuflect on one knee rather than bend? That was not a gesture she expected from Mary’s lover, and she stared after him as he resumed his place in the semi-circle.
“The purpose has been read,” Gaston said, “the oaths sworn, the initiation rite completed. Let the work of the Société begin.”
“I call for a toast,” said Chet. “A round of the best stuff befitting this occasion.”
Patrick opened his bottle of champagne first, followed by Chet’s bottle. By the time the group dipped into Autumn’s wine, midnight was approaching, and the rites took on a mellower, less inhibited air. Chet, who had brought an easel and canvas, declared it too constraining and began to paint the wall on one side of the window. Mary, who had been sitting upright on the corner of the bed, peeled off her turtleneck and laid back, her skin aglow in the candlelight, offset by a black bra. She continued to write in the notebook. Lyle sat at the piano, Gaston had his guitar, and Patrick worked with his pennywhistle as the three of them tried to pull together an original arrangement.
Autumn had her guitar as well, but she didn’t join them. She sat in a far corner, trying out
a melody of her own, but the room had grown hot. The fumes of Chet’s paints, Mary’s unexpected exhibition, and the tinkerings of the group at the piano became agitating, and the magic she felt in the early part of the night began to fade. She tried the tune once more, but when she misplayed a phrase near the middle, she rose without a word and went out into the night.
Gravesend hated pettiness. There should be no place for it in a life too short for most of the good things. Why waste precious time on the irrelevant bad? But even he had to admit at this moment, as the Home Society seated themselves around his dining room table to indulge in dinner, pettiness had a place.
He did all that Oughterard could ask. Throughout cocktails, he played the gracious host, putting forward his best effort to be accommodating and charming at the same time. Not an easy task by any means in the face of the fifteen members of the decor Gestapo, spearheaded by the inimitable Antoinette D’Abonne.
“Inimitable” was the first word that sprang to Gravesend’s mind, followed closely by “swooping.” After that, the mental descriptions went downhill. D’Abonne had a relentless habit of answering the simplest questions with what she called “pearled words.” Earlier in the evening, when asked by a new member in the Home Society why she began the group, D’Abonne replied, with complete sobriety, “I felt my hand must contribute at least a minor stitch to the ever-spinning loom that produces the tapestry of our university and community.” Gravesend recalled her commenting after her husband’s funeral that not enough people used pearled words anymore, a social deficit for which Gravesend felt truly thankful.
And there didn’t seem to be enough linguistic oysters in the world to produce the string of words D’Abonne could let fly when describing the Home Society. Members devoted themselves to the joys of the decorated house. To that end they toured houses “in season” — that is to say in the spring and the fall as well as a special to-do at Christmastime — on both sides of the river. The tours consisted of drinks, a room-by-room viewing guided by the owner, a catered dinner (paid for by the Society) and then an after-dinner review at a less-organized, more informal pace. This last segment often proved to be the most torturous for the owner. He or she may be called upon repeatedly to explain why a certain piece of art came to be displayed as it was or why a chair had been placed in a corner instead of around a table, and so forth. Now in its fifteenth year, the Home Society had become something of an institution. And like all institutions, it was tolerated with good cheer, usually forced, and would remain so for as long as the late Monsieur Emile D’Abonne continued to be more generous to the university dead than all other living benefactors combined.
By dinner, the tour had severely taxed Gravesend’s patience and graciousness. Twice, D’Abonne asked about the locked door on the second floor. Both times Gravesend pretended not to hear her, and when she suggested in a more enunciated and shrill voice that they had missed a room, Gravesend promptly replied, “Not at all, Madame; the dining room will be our final stop.” The comment drew a laugh and temporarily silenced D’Abonne, but Gravesend’s whole attitude became porcupinish.
Revenge, however, awaited him at table. The Home Society graciously allowed the host to choose the menu, although that honor came heavily seasoned with hints that Madame D’Abonne’s French blood and bias were strongest in matters of food and drink. With that in mind, Gravesend smiled as the potato and leek soup was followed by grilled duck in plum sauce. The side dish was corn, and English tarts comprised dessert. Drinks consisted of the finest Burgundy and Chardonnay wines New York’s Finger Lakes region could produce.
D’Abonne, who sat to the right of Gravesend, had regained the use of her tongue and was holding forth on the subject of the painting on the north wall of the dining room. The avid attention the two women to Gravesend’s left and the man on D’Abonne’s right were paying her, marked them as either new to the area or candidates for full membership in the Home Society, perhaps both. The painting depicted two men standing en garde with a writing quill and a paint brush across a river. Above them floated a host of seraphim with horns and lyre, and a ribbon coming from the mouth of the middle angel bore the legend Mets la maudite chose au beau milieu du fleuve et t’en fais.
“Magnifique!” cried D’Abonne. “The entire painting, but especially the statement, is a wonderful tribute to the wife of Mortimer Howell, one of the University’s founders of course. It is art with just the right amount of good-natured mischievousness. Do you not agree, Mr. Williams?”
The man blushed and replied in a low voice, “The soul of the painting is beyond me, I’m afraid, Madame. I don’t speak much French.”
The corners of the lady’s mouth turned southward, and her expression told the world that Mr. Williams had just sealed his exclusion from the Home Society. “Mr. Gravesend, perhaps you would be good enough to explain?”
“Certainly, Madame. The North American University of Fine Arts was founded by Mr. Russell Moss, an American poet and literary critic, seen holding the quill on the right, and Mr. Mortimer Howell, a Canadian art patron and musical manuscript collector who holds the brush. Both men wanted to found a college specifically for students in pursuit of a degree in the fine arts, but they quarreled incessantly over where that university should be located; Mr. Moss wanted it in New York and Mr. Howell argued for Montreal. After one meeting, both gentlemen carried their argument outside to the car that had arrived to pick up Mr. Howell. While the driver opened the back door and waited as the two gentlemen continued to argue, Mrs. Howell reportedly leaned across the seat and called out, ‘Put the damn thing in the middle of the river and be done with it.’ That is the translation of the phrase from the angel, and the genesis of the idea to put the university in both countries. The Schools of Music, Writing, and Sculpture are here in Prue, and the Schools of Painting, Theatre, and Dance are across the St. Lawrence River in Newtown, Ontario. On the island in the river are the library, dormitories, student center and faculty and student dining halls. Only footbridges connect the island with both banks of the river. The bridges were donated by the U.S. and Canadian governments and can be crossed without customs checks. As far as we know, our university is unique in this arrangement.”
“As it is in other ways …” D’Abonne’s attention wandered and alighted on a storm brewing at the center of the table concerning the rose upholstery patterns on the chairs in the adjoining sitting room. Now that he was paying attention, Gravesend heard four or five mini-debates popping up around the table. Somewhere along the course of the debates, the participants threw glances in Gravesend’s direction, eager glances of the seeker to the guru. The final push toward the after-dinner inquisition had begun, and Gravesend, suddenly, couldn’t face it. Excusing himself to take care of a problem arising in the kitchen, he left the table, plucked an old jacket and a battered tweed cap from hooks on the basement door and went out through the cellar entrance into the night.
He walked to no place in particular, allowing the wind to wrap him up in arms of damp silk and soothe his jangling nerves. Some things never change; he couldn’t remember a single party in his life from which he hadn’t “fled,” as Julia used to call it. He hated crowds in close quarters. Crowds were so intense, growing into entities unto themselves like tornadoes, sweeping up individuals and gaining force until they dominated the room, whipping at people who only preferred a bit of solitude and quiet conversation. It was a trait he picked up from his father. Gravesend could take crowds as long as he could separate himself via a classroom desk or stage piano. The Home Society, however, made separation impossible. He shrugged as he walked. Let Oughterard handle them.
He had no idea how long or how far he had walked until a steel column rose up in front of him, twisting with switchback angles. The piece, entitled The Beginnings of Creativity, stood beside the entrance gate to the University, bringing Gravesend to a halt. The gate was two miles from his house. He was calm but tired. Instead of turning around and trudging home, he decided to go to his office and call a cab.
He passed beneath the arches of the gate and started down the path leading to the Music building. The wind carried distant sounds, adding them to the echo of his own footfalls, and one of the sounds Gravesend recognized as an acoustic guitar. He didn’t know the music, but immediately he noted that the guitarist was using a heavy hand to play a song that demanded a light and delicate touch.
The sound broke off, followed by a single-word outburst: “Shit!”
Gravesend kept walking, and ten yards on a young woman materialized seated on a bench, one leg tucked beneath her, the other planted firmly on the ground. For a moment, she reminded him of the fairytales he read as a child in which woodland elves would step out from the forest dressed in flowing clothes the color of trees and flowing hair decorated with leaves and flowers. So she appeared to have done, even though no forests were about, and Gravesend could not recall ever reading about an elf that cursed its own music. She bent over the guitar in such a way that her face was obscured from view.
The song broke down near the middle again, and she let out what sounded like a growl. She tossed her head with enough force to dislodge two leaves, which promptly skittered away into the darkness. Gravesend noted how pale her face was, and before he could judge whether she was pretty or not, she spotted him standing on the path. If it were possible for a person sitting in her position to jump, she did.
“My apologies”, said Gravesend. “I didn’t intend to startle you.”
Instead of replying, she turned back to the guitar and made another attempt at playing the song.
“If you don’t mind my asking, what’s the name of the piece you’re playing?”
“Are you learning it for a class?”
“No.” This time the song broke down only a few bars in.
“Was the piece originally done on guitar?”
She lifted her head again. “Look, what the hell is this? If you’re looking for sex, try the apartments on Chaucer Street. Or is it your job to prowl the college annoying the shit out of people trying to play some music?”
“I’m sorry, no. I’m questioning you out of habit, I suppose. I’m Quinn Gravesend, Professor of Music, and I was thinking that the difficulty you’re having with that song might be the result of the instrument you’re playing.”
“No, my difficulty is the result of the fact that I suck.” She closed her eyes. “Sorry. I’m frustrated.”
“Indeed. But don’t judge yourself too quickly. Do you know what instrument the original song was written for, Miss …?”
“Autumn Gilhain. Dulcimer, I think.”
“In that case, Miss Gilhain, a piano may serve you better than a guitar. The tone would be closer to the original. Hearing the song in a similar tone will help you to learn it.”
“Maybe, but I didn’t have a piano on me when I came out here tonight.”
“Quite right. Still, there is the piano lab in the music building and a good piano in the student practice studio. You could also ask one of your music professors. Many of us have pianos in our offices.”
“Um-hmm.” She fingered the guitar slowly, working her way through the sequence of notes.
“Well then, good evening and good luck,” said Gravesend, but she didn’t reply. He continued on down the path.
The first tangible result of Société de l’Esprit Artistique is evident in Lyle’s apartment, 25½ Davis Street. A cassette demo, roughly taped with two microphones, holds close to eleven minutes of music written and recorded by Lyle (piano), Gaston (guitar) and Patrick (pennywhistle and some sort of percussion, perhaps a pot?). There are places where they play together and breaks for individual instrumentation. What’s surprising is that the finest moments in the work are all parts they play together. Despite the fact that Gaston and Lyle have played together often, neither has ever played with Patrick, whose style and approach is so very different. I would think the shining moments would have been the individual sections. But there it is: the musical version of a fried egg in a salad. Somehow, it works.
But the most impressive effort tonight is the mural Chet painted on the far wall of the room. The first half from the south wall to the window is done in black, red and copper tones against the whitewashed block: a hunt scene, primitive in the way that all raw art is primitive; the bulky coat that hides the svelte form. The painting seems like a cross between the Bayeux Tapestry and animal paintings found on the walls inside of European caves. On the window, which is surrounded by a misty swirl of grey, like fog, he painted a poem by Mary:
Through this shifting world’s maze
we race, but stop—
The sound of the horn delays
the chase. To crops
we’re called, our dreams to raise.
On the other side is a lush growth of vines in soft greens and black earth under an azure sky. The work steals emotion from the viewer but gives back more than it takes. Whether or not this adds or detracts from the work, Chet is sound asleep on the floor in front of it, having given his all. Lyle is on his bed talking softly to Gaston. Mary and Patrick are gone.
And what contribution did Autumn make to the Society’s first night? She tried and failed to learn Epona, and swore at a complete stranger. In other words, about what she contributes to art every night. In lieu of few artistic achievements, this record will be my contribution, but a silent one since I can’t tell anyone about it because of that oath of silence, but more than anything I want to record all that happens here. This group of people, at the very least Gaston, Lyle and Chet, will one future day mean quite a lot to the artistic world. That is when I will make my contribution to the group. A Society member, not some half-assed critic or student looking for a doctoral dissertation, will give a first-hand account of their growth, of who they were and how they came to their recognition. But for now, this record of a secret Society will remain the secret seed buried within me.
“I came to use your piano.”
Gravesend shifted his attention from a student’s score book to Autumn, framed in the doorway, a passing nod to the tradition of waiting to be invited into a professor’s office. The top half of her was already in. She leaned forward with one hand gripping the door frame for balance. Gravesend didn’t respond, watching her disengage from the doorframe and enter his office with bold-faced steps. She stopped short of the desk and rocked forward, bouncing her thighs lightly off the front edge, giving the room a critical once-over.
“Thank you. When you teach at one institution for nearly a third of a century, you earn a few benefits.”
Autumn pointed at the overhead lights. “Too bright though. Those things wash out all the atmosphere. You should have lamps to give the place a softer look.”
“I’ll mention that to the interior decorator.”
She shrugged, tossing her knapsack of books onto an unoccupied chair, and made her way to the piano in the corner. She studied the keys with intent, as if they were arranged in code. “You came to use my piano?”
“Yeah. You invited me.”
“Did I now?”
“You said most professors had pianos in their offices, and I should see about using one. Here I am.” She sat down on the bench and began to play.
Throughout his career, Gravesend had observed literally thousands of students at work behind the piano, but he never recalled anyone approach a piece like Autumn went after Epona. Predatorial was the nearest description that came to his mind. She padded around the first part, circling the melody, moving in a slow weave, her eyes glued to the keys. At every change of tempo or key, she lunged forward, her fingers bounding after the notes she wanted, running the melody down, teasing it with a game of cat and mouse, wearing it out. Finally, she moved in for the kill on the parts of the song that brought out the most passion in her playing: jabbing at the keys not just with her fingers but with her hands, arms, and shoulders to boot. Her body heaved, her back arched, and her elbows swung madly. The end result was nothing short of butchery. All the timing and touch of the song were lost. Nevertheless, Gravesend was intrigued. The teacher in him cringed at her form, but the musician found her passion riveting.
“That stunk,” she announced, pounding out an unrelated note and swerving around on the bench. “I thought you said it’d be easier on piano?”
“I never used the word ‘easier’. I said the piano may give you a more true sound, one that would be closer to the original because the notes in your head and the notes that you play will be closer in quality, pitch, and tone. That can help you get a more honest sense of your progress. But easier? I’m afraid that depends on how skilled you are with the piano.”
Autumn pointed her thumb toward the piano. “Not very. Obviously.”
“Then you should spend more time with it. The keyboard is literally the ‘key board’. It’s the key to all forms. If you master the piano, you open the gateway to the mastery of all music.”
“I didn’t say I couldn’t play it. I just don’t, not that often.”
“Perhaps try warming up first to get reacquainted. Get comfortable. Play something
you’re familiar with instead of throwing yourself straight into the unknown.”
She swung around and fiddled with a few keys. Gravesend left his seat and assumed his teacher’s stance: positioning himself to her right, one foot on the piano bench to afford him a view of her hand movements. She tinkered with several sounds, started something and stopped, and then made an abrupt entrance into Ode to Joy. This time, however, the hound-on-the-hunt contortions didn’t follow. The spirit and the passion that she put into her performance of Epona remained, but her body remained calm. Her fingers struck the keys in smooth, easy time and with flair. Only her lower lip caught in the grasp of her upper front teeth displayed any sign of intensity.
Gravesend’s concentration shifted from her playing to the music itself and the wafts of jasmine drifting up from her swaying wrists. Smell and sound lingered and mingled in his brain waking a deep memory. He let it come to him rather than trying to grab for it. Something about the jasmine scent Autumn was wearing. The idea of a club came to him, but whether that was part of the memory or some puzzle piece his mind created to try to bridge the gap, Gravesend couldn’t tell. The memory got stuck just below his conscious horizon but sufficiently near and powerful enough to send a chill through him. Autumn closed the piece, and the memory sank back into the depths. The chill lingered.
“Getting comfortable, you mean, like that?” she asked.
“That was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful! How is it that you can play Ode to Joy with such perfection and yet have so much trouble performing a lyrical song like Epona?”
Autumn shrugged. “I’ve been playing Ode to Joy since I was ten. It was my mother’s favorite piece.”
“I see. Well then, onto the next step. What I would like you to do now is to sit with your eyes closed and hear Epona in your head. Play it in your mind exactly. Keep it in tempo. Concentrate. Listen to everything: the pattern of the notes, the variations, and the stresses. Don’t do anything else. Don’t try to visualize the music or any of that nonsense. Just replay it note for note in your brain.”
She responded with a queer look but complied, sitting quietly and motionless except for one foot that tapped to the invisible sound of the song in her mind. Gravesend, meanwhile, went after the hint of the memory. Was it the music or the smell of the jasmine that had summoned it? Both together? But they were contradictory, were they not? Beethoven rough-and-tumbled the senses with a raucous, spirited lift, while jasmine caressed subtly and sweetly. Then there was the club idea. He searched his mind for a connection between place, sound and scent, but found none. He hung out and played in many clubs up through the end of the ‘70s. Ode to Joy he had heard an incalculable number of times. Jasmine was more of a rarity. No. The club was a red-herring, and he was certain that the other two things never met before this moment in this room. He took a deep breath to close that door and clear his mind, but another thought slipped through: Was the chill in response to false memory or a living emotion?
Autumn opened her eyes. “Okay, I’ve done it.”
“Good. Now, replay the song in your head just as you did, only this time let it run out your fingers — but slowly. That’s important. You want to feel the flow of the music; you want to feel for the keys, not think about them or how they sound. As each note comes into your mind simply react and reach for a key. Remember to keep the song playing in your head in its proper time, but don’t worry about hitting every note or hitting the wrong note. In other words, concentrate on the note in your head, not how you’re playing that note.”
Her fingers tapped along the keyboard calmly, without the accompanying body gyrations. The rhythm and timing of the song remained uneven, and after striking several incorrect notes, she banged her hand down on the keys. “I just can’t play this damn thing! I’ve been practicing for three weeks now, and I still play like my hands are covered with glue!”
“Patience. You have to let the music come out of you, and that can be difficult work. You can’t force it out. And getting angry will only make it worse.”
“It can’t get any worse! And don’t tell me not to get angry. I’ve had this song in my head ever since Gaston first played it, and I still can’t learn it!”
“You may find it helpful to work on something else for a bit and allow your subconscious time to mull over the song.”
“I just told you I can’t play it.”
“Then why bother? Is this an assignment for a class?”
“No! It’s because Gaston Gunn is a genius.” She scowled at the keys, swiping a piece of lint from the board. “There’s nothing he can’t play and play well. He heard this song once, just
once, and without thinking about it, let alone practicing, he was playing the freaking thing on the guitar like he wrote it.”
“This Mr. Gunn is a student?”
“I said he’s a musical genius. He doesn’t need teachers. Any song he’s heard once, he can play. It’s like people who can remember names after meeting a person one time or people who remember every bit of trivia they hear. Only he does it with music. And like a fool, I try to keep up with him because I don’t want to admit that I’m not a genius.”
Gravesend took his leg off the bench and straightened up. “Can this Mr. Gunn play your piece on the piano?”
“Piano, dulcimer, bongos, you name it; he plays them all. It’s like he can just visualize a song and — poof! — he plays it. The instrument’s irrelevant.”
“Well then, Ms. Gilhain, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place for help. You should consult your friend. I make no claims to being a musical genius.”
She threw him a look of pathetic disgust, a look Gravesend knew so well that he took an involuntary step back from the piano bench. He used it often enough to jab students who fell short of their potential because they had given up or had not tried hard enough.
“You know,” she said slowly, “I came here because a friend of mine said you were a cool teacher who wouldn’t mind helping me out. So don’t give me attitude. Sorry if I bruised your delicate professor’s ego, but the truth is geniuses don’t need teachers. Only the marginally talented like me need teachers. And if you don’t believe Gaston’s a genius, come down to the Lick and Poke one night and hear him play.”
“The Lick and Poke?”
She waved her hand in some vague direction. “A bar near the end of Bloom Street, The Liquor in the Front, Poker in the Rear. There’s a room in the back where people just take the stage and play what they feel like playing: rock, jazz, blues, classical, ethnic stuff, whatever. It’s a cool place with some great music. Gaston plays on Sunday and Thursday nights. Come and hear him for yourself, and you’ll find out just how great he is. Drinks are cheap.”
Gravesend smiled. “Thank you, but no. It sounds like a place more for the student set than for me.”
“We get a mixed crowd. And I’ve seen faculty in there lots of times. Sarah Xydon from the School of Art plays a set on the flute every once in a while. Anyway, it’s not a drink-’til-you-drop kind of place if that’s what you’re thinking. People come to talk and hear good music.”
“And do you ever perform?”
“Sometimes I play accompaniment for Gaston. But most of the time I just go to listen. You’ll know a lot of the people there. Lyle for one.”
“Lyle Glasser, from your Philosophy of Composition class. He’s the one who first told me to come here and ask for your help.” She looked at her watch. “Shit! I’m late.” She was off the bench and brushing by Gravesend before he could move. Grabbing her bag off the chair with one hand, she swung it onto her shoulder as she headed for the door. Then she stopped, turned, and tossed her hair, flashing a smile at him. “Thanks.”
“You’re very welcome, Ms. Gilhain.”
She walked backward through the door. “See you at the Lick and Poke soon?”
“I won’t make any promises.”
She nodded as if he had, and then she was gone.
Autumn stayed curled in the leather armchair that Gaston found in a second-hand store, a copy of Barthes’ Image/Music/Text open in front of her. From that vantage point, she tracked Gaston’s rustling and humming as he gathered up what he needed. With a quick “later,” he went out the door, but Autumn still didn’t move, keeping the book open, and listening. Gaston was forever forgetting this or that, but she knew he had a one-block window in which he would turn around and come back to the apartment to retrieve the forgotten item. If he were more than a block away when he remembered, he went out without it. She let enough time elapse until she was sure he was further than a block away, then got up, checked that Gaston had locked the door, and went into her bedroom. She tossed the book into her knapsack and grabbed an ordinary spiral-bound notebook down from the shelf above her bed. Settling back against her pillows, she began to write.
Society meeting #3, October 8, 1999 … 7:30 p.m. – 12:10 a.m. … Lyle’s Apartment.
The session opened with a long discussion about what the Society’s first tangible production should be. There were two possibilities: a recording of the works the musicians and Mary had composed, or an exhibition by Chet of thematic works done with oils, which was almost complete. Everyone had an opinion and while no one got out of hand, there was a lot of tension. More of a sense of urgency about producing something that could be shown or performed in public. Lyle was wound pretty tight. Mary didn’t look bored. Patrick and Gaston spoke in clipped sentences. Chet didn’t drink. Once word of the Society got spread around the campus, the level of curiosity about who the members were and what we were doing took all of us by surprise. Before the campus lost interest, something had to go out. Up until now, some of the compositions in rough form had been performed at the Lick and Poke, without fanfare or any announcement that the pieces were composed by and for the members of the Society, so they were useless. Good decisions couldn’t be made in that kind of an atmosphere, and everyone knew it, so in order to do something, everyone agreed to make a rough demo on Lyle’s reel-to-reel machine of the songs we had been practicing and go from there.
The recording began around 8:45. The first piece we got down was called The Grammar Snippet composed by Lyle, with the following line-up: Lyle on piano, Gaston and me on guitar, Patrick on recorder, Chet on drums, Mary on tambourine. It took three takes with the third being the only complete version. Patrick sneezed eight bars into the intro of the first one, and Chet lost the beat halfway through the second take. No one got pissed, but no one joked about the breakdowns either. After the third take went smoothly, it was clear everyone felt relieved. Gaston is a guy in constant motion, but until that third take was done, he stood perfectly still. Once finished, he started to nod. Chet just continued to keep the beat to the song on his head.
Next, a Gaston composition, entitled Summer with the Swans, was recorded with the same line-up, except Gaston played a portable organ, and Patrick used a flute. This piece was much more complex, and we made nine attempts. Six were complete. We stopped to have some pizza and listen to all the takes, all of us, except Mary, agreeing on take seven. She liked nine.
The recording session ended with a strange, jazz-like piece that Patrick composed and only Lyle and Gaston had worked on, so the rest of us went to the other side of the room and tried to stay as quiet as we could. There were some interesting musical things being done that showed just how talented this group is, such as Lyle and Gaston breaking into a spontaneous, improvised duet in the middle of the music.
G: If you like water / L: I don’t prefer wine
G: Settle for something hotter? / L: How’s about some moonshine?
G: Got a taste for the hills / L: Never liked the street
G: Run, darling, run / L: Mama’s got quick feet
G and L: There’s no way out of here! Hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm.
Gaston began that last line, and Lyle jumped in on the “no” in perfect sync, and they even hummed in unison. After the recording was finished, Patrick and Mary, looking stunned, applauded, but Chet and I accused them of planning the duet ahead of time. They looked at each other. Lyle explained that they hadn’t, but when they both realized that the music veered a little close to an old David Gilmour song, Gaston sang “there,” and Lyle went with it. They didn’t want to wreck Patrick’s piece by continuing with the Gilmour lyrics, so they hummed themselves back into place and carried on the rest of the song. Now we were all stunned.
Lyle volunteered to take the tapes to the studio in the Music building and transfer the “best” versions. Then we renewed the discussion of what should be the first public works of the Society. Ritual, the piece composed on the initiation night, still needed to be put on tape, and music also had to be worked out to accompany Mary’s recital of three poems. Gaston was all for reserving studio time and working out everything on real tape. Lyle and Patrick both weren’t sure. It was Patrick who came up with the final argument against recording now, saying any recording would sound amateurish until they knew the works inside and out. Gaston might be ready, but we all needed more time.
I hadn’t marked Patrick as being as serious or as much of a perfectionist as the other two. But, he’s really turning out to be quite a match for them, although much different in style than either Lyle or Gaston, who are much more traditional in their compositions and instrumentation. The duet aside, Gaston’s experiments are for his private retreats and rarely shared with the group or suggested for recording. Lyle is straight classical music and traditional forms. He even admitted to Quinn Gravesend that he didn’t care much for Gravesend’s works! Patrick has this way of suddenly going on some wild tangent — for instance this jazz piece — which is so totally different and off-the-wall that it’s almost shocking. Yet when he does this, he seems more in his element, more natural. He brings the color and variety to the music that Gaston and Lyle won’t.
By putting the musical angle on hold, we were still in need of an introductory work, so the conversation turned back to Chet and his oil paintings. He said that a series of thematic paintings concerning time could be ready for viewing by Halloween. That’s all we needed to hear. The decision was unanimous. Chet said he would make the proper arrangements with the University gallery.
From his car, Gravesend watched young men and women – all dressed in flannel shirts and jeans – pass by and disappear into the wind-blown drizzle and darkness. They moved with the ease and confidence of youth: that protective sheen that allows young people to think the time in which they live is virgin clay, theirs to mold.
There had been a time when he walked this sidewalk with the same belief and much the same swagger. These crusty old buildings looked better then, too, although not new by any means. By the time a young Quinn Gravesend claimed these streets, they had already been over a hundred years old. There were sounds back then, sounds that had gone silent now: Workers calling back and forth, whistles blowing time, trucks moving raw materials in and finished products out. Music had to elbow its way into The Roughie and fight for some space. That’s what made the place so raw, so intense. This was captured ground where bodies once lay. That night when a promising, young saxophonist, Alston Kamp, was pulled into a service alley and beaten to death because a gang of whites held different views about a black man having a white woman on his arm than the students who came to listen to the music play.
He smiled at how Autumn Gilhain felt compelled to explain the open-mike forum at the Liquor in the Front, Poker in the Rear as if her generation created that format, that stage, and that place. She can be forgiven. Doesn’t every generation assume their way of doing things was born of their own genius? Yet, there was something sad in what got lost over time. That club got its strange name because of an incident that was just beginning to grow into colorful legend when he arrived in Prue. As the story goes, the tavern used to be called The Mill Race, and the back room was a dining area, not a stage. It stood a block away from the old Prue lumberyard and came to fame in 1919 under the ownership of Roland Siegel, an ex-lumberman who lost his arm in a planer. Prohibition changed The Mill Race, and most other bars along Mill Street (as Bloom Street was known then), from a drinking establishment to a card club that specialized in poker. But unlike his competitors, Siegel used the cards to front a more profitable enterprise: the smuggling of whiskey and wine from Canada into the States.
When Congress repealed Prohibition in 1933, Siegel sat in the enviable position as the sole provider of alcoholic beverages to mill workers with a fourteen-year thirst. On the day drinking became legal, Siegel’s helper, fondly remembered in the legend as a dim-witted young fellow, came to work and nearly died of fright when he found cases of alcohol scattered around the front of the room. He was hurriedly hauling the goods to the back when Siegel walked in, saw what he was doing, and reportedly yelled, “For chrissakes, boy, don’t you read the papers? Prohibition’s been repealed, and the Governor’s cracking down on illegal gambling! You know what that means? It means liquor in the front, boy, poker in the rear!”
Ages upon ages ago.
How many old mill workers watched their time disappear into crowds of young artists — his crowd — who flocked to this section of the town once the university had been built to write their chapter of history? Personal history, such as the Friday night after his first week teaching at NAUFA when the other members of the music department hauled him down to the bar and made him take that stage and perform a capella as a rite of initiation into the faculty. Or town history, such as the night in 1968 when, sitting at a side table with some colleagues, he looked up to see Miles Davis strolling, unannounced, onto the stage. Over the next hour, Davis performed a tribute to John Coltrane that still made Gravesend’s blood tingle, thirty years removed.
Now, these kids on the sidewalk, not his own white-haired generation, continued that history. In his era the bar’s name was shortened to the Liquor and Poker. What did Ms. Gilhain call it? The Lick and Poke? “Crude” was the first thought that came to his mind, but he checked that line of thinking. Looking down on the young is the first and most obvious sign of getting old. While he found some modern music distasteful and a lot of the habits of modern students lazy, he knew too that jealousy underpinned a lot of both feelings. The fact was that when he thought about himself at all, he thought of himself as a young man. So whenever he caught a glimpse of his face, or even its shadowy reflection in the rear-view mirror, it startled him. His face had aged like these buildings, but was far, far less solid, less recognizable. He still felt like the man he was in his youth, but there was no getting away from it: He was more timid, more introverted (if that was possible), less willing to take risks. Less willing, even, to enter the door of a club he had walked through countless times before. Souls doomed to Hell, he concluded, did not burn in unflagging fires; they became eternal spectators.
The last thought drove him out of his seat and down the sidewalk. He felt self-conscious in his tweed jacket and tie, found himself wishing he hadn’t come. But he kept walking. Take a deep breath. Grab the brass door handle of the Liquor and Poker — so familiar, like the hand of a lover. Go in.
After ordering a whiskey and water at the bar, Gravesend went down the corridor past the rest rooms and into the back. The room had changed, but there were still familiar touches that he remembered: The stage front made from wood slats of varying sizes, The Mill Race sign above the doorway leading to the basement, the worn currant-colored velvet curtain that covered the corridor to the kitchen. Gravesend surveyed the people in the room; not another tie and jacket in sight. On the stage, a fellow in a hooded sweatshirt and shorts pounded out a rhythm on steel drums. At a table to the right of the stage, he spotted Autumn Gilhain with a companion who was wearing sunglasses and nodding as he listened.
The percussionist finished to loud applause and deep-throated chants of “Ar-tee! Ar-tee! Ar-tee!” Tossing his dreadlocks, he sauntered off stage, and Autumn’s companion took his place, guitar in hand. He began with a rendition of Stephen Stills’ Love The One You’re With and his voice was double-edged — partly sweet and partly rough, the kind of voice that allows the singer to perform love ballads and throat-ripping rock and roll with the same ease. He finished the Stills song with a flourish on the guitar, acknowledged the response of the crowd with a soft “Thank you” and moved on to a blues melody.
“Am I privileged to be hearing the famous Gaston Gunn?” Gravesend asked arriving at Autumn’s side.
“Hey! Have a seat. Isn’t he great?”
Gunn ran the gamut of styles in his set. After the blues piece, he played a jazz tune, a fiery rendition of Blue Suede Shoes, two pieces of contemporary music categorized as alternative, and finished with a long guitar version of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. When the applause began to fade, he leaned toward the microphone and announced that he would take requests.
“Green Grow the Rushes,” someone called out from the back of the room.
Gunn nodded and started into the song.
“As many times as I’ve seen him do this, it still amazes me,” Autumn said.
“Play this song?”
“No, take requests. I’ve never known him to get stumped.”
“That’s not surprising,” said Gravesend, “considering the sort of audience a place like this draws.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, the people here are all roughly the same age. Most likely they have the same interests and musical tastes as Mr. Gunn. As long as he knows what body of work is currently popular or fashionable among the students, he should be able to handle whatever is requested.”
“You just don’t get it, do you? He can play anything as long as he’s heard it once! This isn’t some average college crowd, you know. You heard his set. The people here appreciate all forms of music, not just pop stuff.”
“Agreed. But if you surveyed the room, you would find most of the patrons prefer a similar type of music or a list of songs from all genres. Also, judging by the response he was given, I’d say Mr. Gunn is more or less the house act so the people know what he can do, and they request songs within his range. Nobody in this room is going to ask him to play, for example, the Rondo-Allegro movement from Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp.”
“Ask him to play the Mozart piece. Or any classical work for that matter.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“He’ll play it, I’m telling you.”
“First of all, I don’t see a flute or harp up there. Secondly, I’m not going to embarrass the young man.”
“Embarrass my ass. If he’s heard it, and he’s heard a lot of music in a lot of forms, he can play it. Go ahead.”
“Listen, I didn’t mean to insult your friend or take away from his talent in any measure. I can see that he’s an incredibly gifted musician, and I understand your defending him, but that is no reason—”
“I don’t have to stick up for him. He’s capable of doing that for himself. Request something.”
“I will not.”
“Afraid you’ll look like an ass when he knows how to play it?”
“I won’t even dignify that comment with a response.”
“Then go ahead. We can bet.”
“Yeah. If he can’t play what you request, I’ll buy you a bottle of your favorite. What is it, whiskey? wine? a case of beer?”
“I’m not much of a drinker anymore.”
“Okay, then you name your winnings. Anything you like. Your call, any price.”
“And if I lose?”
“Then you’ll have to give me something I like … to be named later.”
Her head fell to one side, and Gravesend found her smile to be too coquettish for comfort. He felt his face grow hot. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about how it sounds, right? I mean, you’re so sure that he’s going to blow it. But he won’t, as long as you don’t pick some obscure, 5th century Belgian madrigal or something.”
She was smiling at him cat-like, and it made him feel like the mouse at the edge of its hole contemplating the crumb of cheese just beyond its reach. There was an intensity about her that put him off-balance, an intensity that told him she desperately wanted him to play along. And he was still blushing; he could feel the heat coming off his face like thermals rising from the pavement in the summer. He always was an easy blusher, whether he was embarrassed or not, and he hated it. Even more, he hated the idea that a student thought she had him just where she wanted him, especially about music. Julia used to call it his “closet competitiveness.” For good or bad, Autumn Gilhain had just wrenched open the closet door.
“Very well. I’ll choose something that he should have heard if he is as well versed in music as you insist.”
Gunn was sailing through the final chorus of Swinging on a Star, capturing the song’s jaunty, hat-tilted sound. When he finished, he wiped his face with a towel and said in that same soft voice, “One more I think.”
“The Promenade from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition,” Gravesend called out.
A look of uncertainty flashed across Autumn’s face, but without missing a beat, Gunn unstrapped the guitar and laid it aside. He stepped over to the piano, seated himself, and then off he went. The piano needed tuning, Gravesend noted, but Gunn managed to give as much justice to the piece as the instrument would allow. At the end, the crowd rewarded him with another blast of applause. He stood, nodded slightly, and went to retrieve his guitar and towel.
“He did it. Ha!” said Autumn, “and he did it damn well if you ask me.”
“So he did.”
Gunn came off the stage and joined them. Autumn waved a hand toward Gravesend “Gaston, this is Mr. … Doctor? … Quinn Gravesend, Professor of Music and pomposity.”
Gunn removed his sunglasses, a gesture Gravesend recognized as a sign of respect. His eyes were naturally wide, showing white completely surrounding the brown iris, making him appear to be in a state of permanent wonder. Much to Gravesend’s surprise, the wonder appeared to be genuine. “No kidding, Quinn Gravesend? Wow! I know your work. Cool stuff.” He coughed. “My throat’s all dry, you know?”
“I’ll get some beer,” said Autumn.
Gunn took the seat across from Gravesend. “Symphony Number 1976 was simply awesome.”
“Thank you. It’s always flattering to meet someone who knows my work.”
“Know it? Man, I studied it. I mean, everything was so perfectly balanced even though the tempo kept changing. And some of the heights! Listening to it sounded like being on top of the world, you know? And then coming down, it was like falling fast into nowhere. How’d you manage to come up with that?”
Gravesend lifted his chin and stroked his beard. “To tell you the truth, I don’t remember. I haven’t thought about composing 1976 in a long, long time. That was … a chaotic time period for me. I really couldn’t say for sure how I managed to keep anything in balance then. I don’t mind telling you, however, that the effect you described as ‘falling into nowhere’ pleases me. I suppose I was trying for something rather apocalyptic.”
“You got it! Boy, you got it! But, it wasn’t like the whole piece was depressing or anything. You had sub-rhythms going through the down parts that were good, I mean happier, you know? And the high parts always were balanced by some more ominous sounds. Balance! Everything was in perfect balance.”
Autumn returned with the drinks. “What’re you talking about?”
“Mr. Gunn was just boosting my ego with his flattery.”
“Not flattery. It’s the truth. Man, Symphony Number 1976 was something. I also loved Symphony Number 1967. Another one that blew me away. I told Autumn that she should find some of your stuff, and we should listen to all of it. You’ve never heard the symphonies, have you, Autumn?”
“Uh-uh,” she replied brusquely then looked at her watch. “I wonder where Chet and Patrick and Mary are? They should’ve been here by now. You don’t think they thought we meant we’d meet them at the party, do you?”
Gunn shrugged. “We can go see if they’re there. If they come here and don’t find us, they’ll go on to Donner’s place.”
“You have plans,” said Gravesend pushing back his chair, “so I won’t keep you. I came to hear you play, Mr. Gunn, and I must say that I’m impressed.”
“Hold it, Mister! You’re not going anywhere!” said Autumn.” We’re not leaving right away, and you owe me something.”
“You said that was to be named later.”
“Well, I’m naming it now. I think Gaston’s right; I should hear your works. So, Gaston, what’re you in the mood to hear now? Symphony Number 1976?”
“You want me to play from one of my symphonies?” asked Gravesend.
“1976 would be cool, but it couldn’t be done on that piano,” said Gunn. “It could handle one of the slower movements from The Julia Suite, though.”
“Great,” said Autumn. “A movement from The Julia Suite it is.”
“I’m sorry, but I couldn’t possibly play right now.”
“What kind of a teacher tries to slide out of a bet?” asked Autumn. “A musical genius would never do that.”
Gravesend raised both hands, palms outward. “I’m not trying to get out of making good on my bet, I assure you. It’s just that I can’t play now, here. Especially not from my symphonies.”
“Why not?” asked Autumn.
“For starters, I haven’t played one of my pieces in twenty-some years.”
“Jesus Christ, I’m not asking for a whole symphony! Just a selection or two won’t kill you.”
“I promise, I’ll return and play something – soon. But not tonight. Thank you both. Mr. Gunn, I’ll say it again, you’re an excellent musician.”
“Fine. Leave,” said Autumn kicking at the leg of an unoccupied chair. “But, I’m not going to let you forget about this.”
“Nor will I forget. Goodnight.” He nodded to both of them and moved away from the table, making a conscious effort to appear like he was simply leaving the room and not fleeing. But once he was beyond the door, he hurried down the corridor and out into the cool night as fast as he could. He drove erratically all the way home.
The air had turned cold and smelled of snow on the way. But Autumn was grateful for the heavy, low-slung clouds; they cut off the moonlight. The wind, too, subdued all fainter sounds. What boldness made her come this far, she didn’t know. Still, when Gravesend froze in the act of raising his glass to his lips and looked alert, as if he heard something, she ducked behind a tall grave marker, crouching in its shadow. At the same time she heard the sound of a car moving in reverse. Headlights appeared, arcing away from where she sat and pointed back toward the main road. That was Gaston pulling away from the cemetery entrance; she had no other choice now but to stay.
She stood. The stone she had been hiding behind was topped by a statue of the archangel Michael slaying the serpent. Gravesend sat only a few yards away.
She moved to the edge of the monument.
Gravesend finished his sip of wine.
“I favored Halloween above any other day in the year as a child,” he said holding up the bottle and refilling his glass. “I bet I never told you that. Or perhaps I did and forgot mentioning it. Anyway, Peter, Ingrid, and I would leave the farm at dusk and try our best to flit down the country roads, pretending to be invisible, carried along by the stiff winds blowing off the Manitoban plains. We were spirits haunting the paths of the world because for that one magical evening our farm, and all the others surrounding it, formed the entire world, and we were the spirits loosed upon that world. If the winds howled through the trees, they did so at our bidding. We called for moonlight to shine, or if clouds cut out the light then our spells caused it to happen. We commanded the rain and snow, or, if we wished, the sky would remain clear and cold and the lingering light of sunset could not fall beneath the horizon until we gave the sign. The roads were empty for fear of us, for the door of the underworld stood open, and all the people barred their own doors against our terrible faces.
“Because, you see, we took corporeal form in order to demand offerings from the living, our tithe, to ensure that we would remain in the formless underworld for another year. Their doors would open slowly in response to our deadly hollow knocks, and the warm air from inside their houses would come pouring out to soothe our cold faces. The neighbors passed out their goods with looks of feigned horror poorly covering genuine amusement. This would go on until eleven when we were called back along the dark road to Erebus. Actually, home, where we delivered all the goodies we had gathered and changed into pajamas to await our transformation. We were imaginative kids, weren’t we?
“Our transformation came at midnight. Then the haunters became the haunted. We would gather around the fires of hell – the living room fireplace, the only light allowed in the house on Halloween – and suck on lollipops as mother, whom we referred to on this night as Mor Mephistopheles, spun Danish ghost stories. Her spells were far more powerful than our own. As she spoke, the wind became the cries of the dead approaching from the graveyard two miles away; the crackle and snap of the fire became echoes of their laughter and footsteps, drawing closer, lured toward us by the sound of her voice and the spidery piano accompaniments played by father.
“How I’d love to go back to that time, to recapture the feeling of being innocent and wide-eyed again. To experience Halloween one more time as I did fifty years ago, or even twenty-five. I know you don’t like it when I say I hate something, but I do hate Halloween now and have hated it for two decades.” He took a deep breath. “I know, I know. You wouldn’t like me talking this way. Forgive me. More wine?”
Gravesend filled a second glass with the Pinot Noir and poured the contents slowly into the grass that covered the grave. After topping off his own glass, he settled back against the headstone and took another drink.
“Okay!” He blew out a deep breath. “How am I? I don’t know. I know I cannot hide anything from you now that you have solved the final mystery. Like I could hide anything from you when we were married! But I’m good at hiding things from myself. So, take this with a grain of salt when I say that I am not being swept away. I’m too old for that sort of nonsense.” He snorted. “I would have thought I was too old for any of this. Let’s see. What’s happening?
“You know what this feels like? Victoria Day, 1956, in the Ornsby Ballroom. Only I was much more full of myself then. I had so many people telling me at twenty that I was sure to be a genius by thirty, and I believed every word of it. Into the room walks this exotic Indian woman with a soft face and a very shapely dress, and Ryan tells me she is a freshman at the University of Toronto, not yet a year in Canada. Knowing that, I knew that getting her to bed would simply be a formality; after all, any young, Manitoban lad worth his stripes in my day knew immigrant girls were less uptight about sex than native Canadians. So I strutted over to her, and in return I got such a slap that my cheek carried the bruise from her hand for several days.
“Just as well, wasn’t it? Had she accepted my proposition that night, I surely wouldn’t be here now. Her slap sent me off on a chase that led right to you, didn’t it? You tried to convince me for years that you planned it that way, planned on me even before you met me. Well, my love, I have little doubt now that you did.”
Gravesend poured another round of wine: one on the grave and one for himself. “Anyway, that’s how I feel: as if I am at the beginning of something much like I was at the beginning of my work and love when I first saw Teema, and that romance led me to marry the greatest woman in the world. I cannot envision ending up quite as well the second time around.
“So, where was I? Yes, these feelings. I’d brush the whole thing off as self-indulgent rubbish, but I’m having that recurring dream about composing again, the same one I had right after you died. It begins with me in the auditorium of the Conservatory watching old Heinstadt, but instead of lecturing, he is writing out a musical score on a large chalkboard at the side of the room. Each time I have the dream, the score grows, becomes a bit more complete. And each time, I raise my hand and comment that I’m not familiar with the piece. He gives me the how-stupid-can-students-be look and yells in that terrible German accent he had, ‘I am noting vat you are tinking because it’s damn goot!’
“When did I first start dreaming this again? Sometime around the beginning of the term. Actually, I think the dream is rooted in vibrations I first sensed on the day the term began, when I took my walk and stood watching the river. I had it again during the night of that stupid Home Society Party. Then I had it again two nights ago when I went to the Liquor and Poker to see that guy I was telling you about play and his friend Ms. Gilhain. When she asked me to perform, I panicked. There is no other word for it. The vibrations at the river, the dream, the unknown sensation I told you about earlier when Ms. Gilhain came to use my piano: what’s the connection?”
Gravesend stopped talking to take a sip of wine and stare up at the sky for a minute.
“Of course, it’s entirely possible that I’m asking the wrong question to evade the truth. What do you think, Julia? You always waited for me to ask for your help, and you never failed to be helpful in your own aggravatingly mysterious way – and that’s when you were alive. So, I’m asking now, and I’m going to shut up, close my eyes and listen for your reply, if, indeed, you haven’t nodded off into spiritual sleep. I hope not, my love. I always want to hear from you, but now, I fear, I need to.”
Autumn watched him shift, settle against the headstone, and close his eyes. What the hell was he doing? Was he going to sleep? No, no one could sleep in this cold and wind, with snow on the way, but as long as he sat that still, she couldn’t move, unless she wanted to jump out and say “Boo!” She hunkered down beside the stone, huddling in her own arms, to wait for whatever was to come.
Gravesend awoke with a start and a fierce chill, disoriented and with pockets of snow in the folds of his jacket. Driven by the wind, the flakes continued to prickle his face. He shook his head at his stupidity. He was going to be frightfully sore in the morning if not downright sick. Stiffly, he turned and used the headstone to get to his knees. Keeping both hands on the stone, he pressed his lips to the top of the cold marble. Then, he pushed himself slowly upward, checking to be sure everything was in working order. After gathering up the glasses and empty wine bottle, he lumbered forward in the general direction of his car.
“Hey,” said a soft voice from the shadows.
The bottle and glasses fell from his hands; Autumn Gilhain stepped out into the dim light of a half moon.
“What? What in God’s name are you doing here?”
“It’s an accident … really … well … sort of. Gaston and I were on our way back to NAUFA from Kingston when he took a turn that he thought was a road but was the driveway to the cemetery. When I recognized your car, I got curious. I didn’t think you were going to make a night of it here.” She held her arms close to her side and shivered.
“So to satisfy your curiosity and amuse yourself you turned to eavesdropping.”
“That’s not true! I did listen, but only to see what was up. I was worried for a moment; I really thought you lost it when I heard you talking to a tombstone. Then, I figured out it was your wife, and I didn’t want to interfere, so I hung out over here.”
“You ‘hung out.’ No doubt within hearing distance.”
“Well, it’s all pretty bizarre, isn’t it? I mean, why did you do all this?”
She pointed at the glasses and the bottle. Gravesend bent, slowly, and picked them up from the grass.
“It’s late and cold, and I don’t feel especially bound to stand here and explain anything to you.”
“Would you explain it to me on the way home then?”
“Well, one of the reasons I hung out was because I need a lift back into town.”
Gravesend paused, trying to think of a way to not take her with him. The wind kicked up again, a single gust, and whether it hit some tree or his mind the wrong way, he thought he heard in that gust a passing echo of Julia’s laughter. He grunted and started off toward the car. “Come along then.”
Gravesend kept quiet, waiting for Autumn to speak, but she had nothing to say until the car was turned about and heading for the road.
“I know I shouldn’t have done this. And if it’s too personal to talk about I’ll understand, but I’m curious about what you were doing. And why this.” She leaned down and picked up the empty bottle of wine from the floor in front of her seat.
Gravesend shrugged. “It’s October 31st, at least it was when I arrived at the cemetery. Nearly every culture in the world believed at one time or another that on one night of the year the dead could come in contact with the living. Usually they celebrated it with a feast of some sort. And since my wife died on Halloween, you could say I feel especially linked to this night and that ritual.”
“So you do this every Halloween?”
“That’s right. The first year, I brought two bottles, one for each of us. I learned my lesson then, so every year afterward, we share a bottle.”
“What happened that first year? Did you pass out?”
“On her grave? For how long?”
“Until a grave digger arrived to start work in the morning. Poor fellow thought I was his next customer.”
“So you were busted?”
“No. He brought me over to the toolshed and gave me coffee from his thermos. In fact, he gave me most of his coffee. Quite a sacrifice, really. Did you ever hear the expression ‘cold as a gravedigger’s ankle?’ A hot drink would almost seem to be required to get through the day. Even given modern methods, digging graves is cold, nasty business in November. Much like spying. Out with it. What did you hear?”
“Not much, honest. I heard you talking about some girl who slapped you in a Toronto ballroom. But I missed the connection between that and your wife.”
“That’s a long story.”
They went on in silence.
“Of course,” she said, “to get back to the American side, we’ll have to go up to Cornwall and cross the bridge there.”
“And that can be a long ride.”
“Well? Longer than the story?”
“I see no reason to tell you the rest. Furthermore, I don’t understand why you would want to hear it. There’s nothing lurid about any of it.”
“Hey! I don’t get off listening to other people’s sex stories. You know you want to tell the whole tale to someone, so I’m letting you know I want to hear the rest of it.”
“Because I’m interested in it, in you, in this whole damn bizarre thing I just saw.”
Gravesend wished he had followed up on his initial response to finding her in that cemetery: Telling her to hoof her way back through Newtown to Prue, but at the same time, he was glad for the company. Also, technically, he was at fault; he had asked for Julia’s help, and this sort of coincidence bore her mark. It seemed ungracious to second-guess that now.
“Julia and I met in 1957. I was a third-year music student looking to leave the University of Toronto for a conservatory where I could devote myself completely to music. Julia was a third-year mathematics student. The whole twisted process that brought us together really was as natural as breathing, even to a blind Romantic such as I was in those days. Actually, Romantic might be too generous a label. I was a naive, cocky, over-ripe adolescent, much too sure of myself for my own damn good. Quite like you are now, I might add.
“Anyway, at the time I met Julia, I was pining away for the woman you heard me speak of in the cemetery, the woman from India. Her name was Teema, Teema Bhudartashinti, the most exotic woman I ever knew. We would go places on purely platonic terms – her terms not mine. But I was certain those terms would change as soon as I began to seriously compose. I ached over having to wait, something of a Romantic self-flagellation. You see, suffering was what we young Romantics did best: the more angst, the more Romance. I saw my pain as real, as the price exacted by destiny for blessing my future with Teema. I would make up scenarios in my head: she would run off with someone else to Europe, and I would carry on alone in Canada, composing stunning pieces inspired by her memory and a single photograph. Then one day she would realize she did not love the man she married, or some terrible event would send her – and a child, of course – fleeing back to me. By that time, I would be wealthy and famous. I would take her in, adopt her child, and we would live out our pre-ordained lives together in absolutely blissful love. What rubbish.”
“And Julia straightened you out?”
“Not at first. She couldn’t have been any less like me or Teema or the Romantics. She was independent, fiery, with a mathematical assuredness to her and an eye that cut to the heart of all matters. We met in a physics course. After one class, we started talking, and, since it was getting on toward noon and we didn’t have another class until two, we decided to have lunch. The next thing we knew, the waiter came around setting the empty tables for dinner. It was four-thirty.”
“You blew off your class for her?”
“No, nothing so grand as that. We simply got lost in conversation every time we talked. I would ask a physics question that she would answer in the first five minutes, but then we would end up talking for two hours. It got to where we would have to make a conscious effort to watch the time to be sure we didn’t get into trouble.”
“And that’s when you realized you were falling in love with her.”
“I don’t believe anyone can say exactly when he falls in love, and certainly I couldn’t pinpoint when it happened with Julia. Love had always been something of a lightning bolt, striking me with such a force that all other thoughts burned away in its aftermath. That’s how I reacted to Teema, so while whatever was happening to me with Julia was happening, I was not aware of it. I still believed that Teema was the only woman in the world for me. I noticed, of course, that Julia was kind and sensory and brilliant, and all that was fine. But somewhere in that time, I began to notice she was beautiful, and that’s when I panicked.”
“Jumped right off the cliff. She was no Teema. Julia didn’t have an exotic bone in her body. But every woman has her own beauty, and once that beauty reveals itself to a man, he can’t ever understand how he didn’t see it straight away. And then if he notices a woman’s beauty without looking, it scares him. It felt like going on stage to rehearse and suddenly realizing that this was the performance.”
“So, what did you do?”
“I muddled about, making a total mess of everything. Fate loves to tease fools. As it turned out, for such an analytical woman, Julia loved flowers, pretty things, pretty words. She hated the Romantics, and Romantic-era notions, but she loved to be romanced. But she got none of those things from me early on because I was so far out of my league. I was acting the way I thought she would want me to act. And although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, in retrospect I could see that while I groped my way toward her, there was always something completely natural about us, some guiding hand that either made sure I didn’t go too far overboard or supported Julia’s humor when I did. Years later, I realized all that naturalness that held us together stemmed from our talks.”
As Gravesend drove and talked, he kept using his peripheral vision to observe Autumn, who was sitting with her arms folded and staring straight ahead out the windshield. He guessed that since the heater had the car warmed up to the point where both of them had loosened their jackets, she was trying not to look at him, her crossed arms holding her back. Now, however, she couldn’t help herself. Her arms went down to her lap, palms upward, her head swiveled toward him, her expression rearranging itself into a look of disbelief.
“Yes. Our talks.”
“Not you doing stuff together? Holding hands? Or Being together? You know, your intimacy?”
“Talking is a form of intimacy. Learn that. I didn’t know it back then, either, but from the very beginning, we took time every night to talk, be it about trivial matters or debates over issues. Talking was how we bonded: the communication and intimacy of sharing voices and thoughts. From the time we began to date, I can’t remember a night ever going by when we didn’t have a good talk, even if most of them started out, ‘Hello, how are you, what’s new?’ We walked around the campus to talk, and when I went to the Conservatory in Montreal, we talked by phone and letters. After we were married, we always held our talks either on the porch or in the sitting room. Right up until the end. The week before Julia died, she demanded that she be released from the hospital. I tried to tell her that it wasn’t wise, but she just shook her head and said she wanted to go out on her terms, and her mind had set on the fact that we would sit on our porch and have our last talks. I had to carry her out to the porch swing, and she lay there swaddled in so many blankets she looked more like a cocoon than a person. Her voice had gotten wispy, but we talked. We finished our last conversation of her life around six o’clock on Halloween, just before the children began to make their rounds. She died at nine-thirty. So that’s why every Halloween I come out and talk to her. Now you’re up-to-date, and we’re coming up to Prue, so where do you want to be delivered?”
Gravesend swung the car in alongside the curb in front of number 127. Autumn’s hand was on the door, but she made no move to open it.
“I really am sorry for eavesdropping tonight. That wasn’t a cool thing to do.”
“I repaid you by burying you alive under my story. I still don’t believe for a moment that you wanted to hear it. Perhaps you were trying to blunt the edge of my anger for finding you at the cemetery?”
“Maybe. Or perhaps I was just trying to be a friend? Sometimes you just have to talk to people who can still hear you.”
“I have no doubt that Julia hears me. But thank you for that.”
She looked away and fidgeted. Gravesend sensed she was caught in the middle of something, swinging in the wind and uncomfortable. He was enjoying her discomfort until she reached for his hand resting on top of the gear shift and closed her own hand over his, giving it a gentle squeeze. His conscious reaction was to pull his hand out from under her grasp, but instead, his fingers curled around the top of the gearshift and stayed put.
“Goodnight,” said she, cool as ice, smoothly disengaging her hand from his and sliding out the door.
He watched her walk up to the entrance of the house and disappear inside. Although he listened all the way home, Julia never made a sound.
“I’m looking for recordings by Quinn Gravesend,” Autumn said. “Symphonies.”
The clerk, who looked to be about sixteen, shook his head and said “I am sorry, but we do not carry very much classical music in this store.”
“You know he’s a Canadian composer, right?” Autumn asked. “That he studied in Montreal? Has a huge international reputation as probably the best living classical composer?”
The boy shrugged. “I am sorry. We carry only the very popular styles of music.” He picked up a CD case of Roch Voisine’s Chaque Feu… pointed, and shrugged again.
“So, you don’t have anything by Quinn Gravesend?”
The boy shook the case, shook his head, and said “Non.”
“Nothing? This is the fourth music store I’ve been to, and none of you sells The Julia Suite. This is Montreal, and he’s Canadian for God’s sake! One of the greatest composers of symphonies, and you people don’t think you could have one damn CD lying around? I mean, really? Nothing?”
The boy’s face shifted from apologetic to startled and then to angry. “What is the matter? Do you not speak English well? We do not carry classical music, not for Quinn Gravesend, not for Amadeus Mozart.”
“Screw it!” She slammed her palms down on the counter, making the boy jump. She covered the space to the door in three steps. With one hard shove, she was out into the twilight gathering around the edges of Montreal.
People whirled by her, talking in a cacophony of a language she couldn’t comprehend. The sounds pressed in on her from all sides, nudging her anger higher. Fuck the other members of the Society for not offering to go along with her. But that wasn’t true; Patrick offered, and she turned him down. Well, fuck him for not going anyway. If they wanted to leave her alone in this strange country to fend for herself, it wouldn’t be the first time. She turned around completely looking for a street sign, and seeing none, she just started walking. What was pissing her off? It really wasn’t the members of the Society. Or the store clerk. It wasn’t because she couldn’t find a Gravesend CD. So what was it? She had no idea.
She spotted a street sign on a corner: Av du Parc and Rue Milton. She turned down Milton. What was getting under her skin was this country. Everyone talks about Canada like it’s the nice, unassuming guy who always gets stuck sitting next to the loudmouth U.S. on the plane. Sure, she gave the kid in the music store reason to think of her as another ugly American tourist, but from what she saw, Canada was no great place. What did Gaston see in this city? What did her father see in this country? Just a place to be left alone. If that’s all Canada seemed to be good for, then fine. She was more than willing to leave it alone.
She continued down Milton, past Durocher, past Aylmer. She didn’t realize she had wandered so far. As best she could, she shut out the passing conversations. She didn’t want the chaos of unintelligible talk, the exclusion of not understanding. What did she want? To get drunk. Roaring drunk. To drink a bottle of good, French red wine in a cafe by candlelight and watch the people and light and sound all blur together. She wanted to feel that slow descent into the nexus where inhibition and appetite meet. There, all of these voices speaking words she didn’t know would become just another part of the mix. Drunkenness – the great equalizer. Once the language barrier was gone, she would be free to dance in a place where the music would be loud and fast and the faces of men would whip by her. And before the night ended, before she climbed back up to sobriety and the unreal reality, she wanted to be kissed. Not as a prelude or an ending to something else, but truly kissed, solely and entirely for the kiss itself. She wanted a kiss that became an entity, blacking out sounds and sights and smells: a kiss that, for the moment it lasts, is the only reason for living and being.
But first she had to find a way to cork the disappointment with herself that the anger had left behind. And that was no easy task. Since no one was with her, the devil turned inward. Cutting away from the rest of the group to go trudging through a foreign city late in the afternoon was a pretty stupid thing to do. And for what? What made her think that four small stores around McGill University, not a hotbed of musical composition, would have a copy of The Julia Suite? Especially when the large store in Prue had no copies, and the clerk said it couldn’t be ordered? Just because Gravesend was Canadian didn’t mean every record shop in the country carried a complete catalog of his works.
But why get so upset over it? Because she hadn’t planned on going. Because her reason for wanting the CD wasn’t for herself but curiosity about Quinn Gravesend. What other reason could there be for even taking the time out to look for the work? Well, Quinn Gravesend can give her a copy, or he can go to hell. She had more important things to do. Automatically, she squeezed the outside of her bag until she traced the outline of the steno pad and pen inside. The notebook she used to record the doings of the Society would have been too big to carry along, and not knowing where she might be staying tonight, she didn’t want to risk having one of the others accidentally discover it. She would transfer what she wrote later.
She looked up to see she had missed Lorne, so she went on until she came to University. She could get to Prince Arthur from there, so she turned toward the McGill University campus. Rue University was blissfully empty of both people and cars; she walked out into the middle of the street and looked both ways. Nothing. She shrugged and headed west toward Mount Royal Park. What would normally have struck her as eerie and even dangerous anywhere else didn’t register in her brain beyond the thought that the street must be shut down for some reason. More than anything, she was thankful for the quiet. She strolled along, reveling in the silence until it was broken by the sound of multiple footsteps running toward her. She turned and saw three people gaining on her. She couldn’t tell if they were men or women, and the sight of them made her stop and stand where she was. The leader wore a mask of the sun, its rays like golden spikes sticking out on the sides and the top. One of the companions sported a goat’s head, complete with horns, and the other had on a sheep’s head. The trio reached her and raced past going straight down the center of the street. Autumn watched them barrel ahead and then stop, grabbing each other’s arms and pointing. She looked beyond them.
A wall of people was coming down the street toward them and her. More were pouring in from the sides. They carried torches and lights of all sorts until the street became a river of flame flowing with people in masks and costumes on parade. Before she could move, they had swallowed her. Whooping and hollering, dancing or strutting or walking, characters of all shades and styles, all contortions of face and color of body, swam past her. A man with a golden headdress and gold-painted hands grabbed Autumn’s arms and twirled her as he danced by, leaving her with a passing phrase in French. A man on stilts brushed by her, followed by a woman carrying a battery powered strobe ball. Instruments spoke and answered without pattern or score, creating a surreal voice that, despite its lack of order, sounded far more harmonious to her ears than the normal course of the native language had only moments before. Autumn tried to move out of the center of the street toward the sidewalk, but she wasn’t making much headway until strong hands grabbed her arms.
“Not a good night for a stroll down University, Autumn-girl,” said a familiar voice plowing a path for her through the mayhem. “This is some group out here.”
“And his mate,” said Patrick. “Two white knights coming to rescue a lady … of sorts.”
“What the hell’s going on?”
“You’ve been Chet-mated,” said Patrick, hauling her out of the crush of people and up onto the sidewalk. Chet reached up and slapped him on the side of the head. Patrick chuckled, turned toward the streaming crowd and spread his arms wide. In an emcee tone, he bellowed, “I give you La Mascarade Rouge!”
“Jesus Christ, what’s that?”
“La Mascarade Rouge means The Red Masque,” Patrick said, “a holdover tradition from the European universities in the Middle Ages. Simply put, it’s a student carnival. The closest thing I can think to compare it to in the United States is your Mardi Gras, although the Red Masque is not on so grand a scale as that. Students dress in masks and costumes and parade through the streets of the university and the city at dusk. In medieval times, the paraders carried torches, and it would appear this group decided to carry on that tradition. This is the lead group. The streets of the University behind us are lousy with others. They’ll circle around and end up in the Park.”
“Why are you two out here? Weren’t you going to Gaston’s gig?”
“Not the best choice tonight, I’m sorry to say,” Patrick said. “He’s playing a rather dull set to an audience consisting of one couple in a corner holding hands and a fellow sweeping the floor.”
“It seems,” said Chet, “that the owner of the place wants to draw in the love-birds and leave the frenzied masses out here, so he has Gaston playing all slow stuff until midnight. Patrick and I opted to check out this Red Masque and keep an eye out for you.”
Autumn looked around and noted Chet’s easel standing against the wall of one of the buildings. Patrick held a flute in one of his hands.
“So, we drove eighty-four miles for this?” Autumn asked.
“Do you know of any better entertainment in Prue?” Chet said.
“No. I guess not. Where’s Lyle?”
“He stayed on at the club to accompany Gaston on the piano,” Patrick answered. A section of people dressed in monk’s robes came by humming a dirge that grew louder as they went. “Here’s for it!” With a wave, he plunged in and began piping out the melody, moving with the group, swallowed up by the revelers.
Chet retrieved his easel, placed it under a streetlight, and opened the case that held his paints and sketching nibs. Grabbing an outcast crate from in front of one of the buildings, he sat and began to sketch. Autumn, looking for a more secure vantage point than the curb, settled herself a short distance away on the steps of an apartment building. She watched Chet become absorbed in the masque, and when she felt sure he would stay put, she took out her steno pad and began to write.
November 12, 1999 … 7:10 pm … Montreal on the night of the Red Mask, McGill University. All members of the Society are in the city except for Mary. Gaston and Lyle are performing; Chet and Patrick and I have come to see the event.
Patrick has gone on ahead with a group of imitation monks. Chet sits below me sketching the crowd passing by him. Music is everywhere. The torches throw a red cast over it all, hence the name, I guess. The costumes are bizarre — at this moment walking past me are a man with an elephant trunk hanging from his face, a woman with bottles tied to her clothing, and two men in suits bearing a third dressed as a knight on a wooden plank. On the knight is a broadsword, the hilt extending off the edge of the bier in such a way that the edge of the blade runs along the middle of the man’s body. The point nearly touches his chin.
The door to the apartment behind Autumn opened and two girls stepped out. They were dressed in street clothes rather than costumes, and Autumn stared at them as they whispered and giggled, clutching at each other’s arms. Then one of them pointed to Chet and said in English, “Oh look, he’s painting. I want to be painted.”
“Marisse, you don’t.”
“I do. Look at us, out-of-place, dressed so nice. I want to get wild.”
“Yes! I bet the touch of it lasts all night.”
“Or as long as the wine does,” said the girl, frowning.
Marisse straightened herself and nodded. “I’m going to do it. But, what if he charges. Are you carrying any money?”
“Only four dollars.”
“Excuse me,” said Autumn. “But I could get him to paint you for free … or, well, almost free.”
“What do you mean by ‘almost free’?” asked Marisse.
“Maybe we can work out a deal? How about I get him to paint you for no charge in exchange for some wine?”
“That’s fair,” said the other girl, and Marisse nodded.
Autumn led them down to Chet, leaning in close to his ear. “These girls are going to give us some wine, if you paint them. How about it?”
“But I was only going to draw tonight, to use for a later painting. This isn’t just some college carnival, Autumn-girl! It’s artistic fodder!” He looked past Autumn at the pair fidgeting behind her, and a smile crept across his face. “However, I suppose I could use these beautiful ladies as warm up exercises.” He waved Autumn aside to address the girls. “Now, ladies, what if I draw you?”
“No! I want to be painted!” said Marisse moving her hands in circles before the trunk of
“But I brought only paper, no canvas.”
“You do not understand. I want you to paint on me.” She crossed her arms and tugged her shirt halfway up her torso, baring her stomach. “Paint me here to start.”
Chet simply waved Marisse closer.
“The wine,” said the other girl to Autumn, “is inside the apartment on the kitchen table. Go through the door and down the hallway.”
Autumn nodded and retreated back to the steps of the house. Inside, a dim light burned in the corridor, and she followed it into a tiny kitchen where six bottles of wine stood on the table. She moved toward the bottles, then a noise startled her. She looked to her right and saw a woman in her early thirties sitting on a kitchen chair in the corner, near the entrance to the basement. She wore a dress hiked up to mid-thigh and was slowly rolling a stocking up and down her leg, staring dreamily at the movement.
“Hi,” Autumn said. “Marisse told me to come in for a bottle of wine.”
The girl said nothing until Autumn began to squint at the labels to see which were French and which were full.
“Do you want love?” asked the girl.
“I want love. Tonight is a night for love.”
Autumn didn’t answer her. She found a bottle of unopened Beaujolais and looked around for a corkscrew.
“Do you want love?” repeated the girl.
“Right now, I want a corkscrew.”
The girl giggled, putting a hand to her mouth. “I think you would like a man. A certain man.”
Autumn nodded, looking around in the dim light to see if a corkscrew were laying around.
“An older man, perhaps?”
Autumn focused again on the young woman. “Let me see your face.”
The girl looked up and the dim light of the kitchen fell on her round face. A wayward, brown curl swung before her right eye. The rest of her face looked very dreamy, very drunk. “You want an experienced man, one who will sweep you up and make your life a mystery. You want a man with history and passion and secrets. That’s what I want. You want secrets? We all want secrets. We all have secrets, but they aren’t enough.”
“Uh-huh.” Autumn went over to the sink and looked over the counter. “Mind if I look in the drawer for the corkscrew?”
“Corkscrew! Bah, corkscrews. You don’t have a chance with a man of mystery if you only are interested in corkscrews, you know. You are too real. You are not enough aware of the secrets of a man. The deep secrets. You need to grip the mystery. To show him mystery. Do you want to be just kissed? Or kissed by him?”
Autumn whirled around. “Who the fuck are you?”
“I am called …” She raised her arms above her head and twirled her hands, “Helene.”
“Helene the damn psychic or what?”
“Helene … the lover.” She giggled and wagged a finger at Autumn. “Secrets and mystery” she said in a sing-song voice, “or you will never understand a single kiss.”
Autumn put down the Beaujolais, grabbed a nearly full, opened bottle of burgundy, and left the kitchen, retracing her steps down the corridor to the stoop. She took several deep pulls at the wine bottle to chase Helene out of her head. She opened her steno pad and focused on the scene playing out beneath the street lamp.
Marisse is her name, this beautiful, petite girl, probably eighteen. She stands with her arms raised, her hands behind her head holding and feathering her hair. She is naked from the waist up and is leaning slightly backward so that her stomach is thrust forward. Chet dips his brush into the paints before finishing a pattern on the bare skin by circling her navel. At a word from her, he cleans the brush, takes more paint on the tip and moves it toward her chest. He paints a thick line from the notch at the base of her throat down through her cleavage to the pattern below. Next, two branching lines extending around the inner swell of each breast up to her shoulder.
She turns now, facing away from me, and the painting resumes on her back. Each stroke of Chet’s brush may as well be his fingers for the reaction it draws from Marisse. Her head is turned to the side toward me, and her eyes are closed. Her fingers are caressing her hair, and her face is nearly dripping with delight and erotic pleasure. But it’s Chet who is the curious one. He’s all artist, giving the same attention to Marisse’s skin as he would give to any canvas. He told me one time that personality plays better in the trenches than looks, that looks get you in the door, but they aren’t the best for sealing the deal with a woman. From what I’ve seen of the angles he’s worked with several girls in the Lick and Poke, I’d say he may be right. But this is different. Marisse is stunning in her build, and I can’t see Chet in the darkness, but I’d like to see if he’s got a bulge in his pants. If I had to bet I’d say no. I’ll say it again: The members of this group are extraordinary in the way they focus on their art, but they are human beings. When I recount this scene to Chet tomorrow, he’ll throw an adorable fit.
Right now, he leans in and is saying something to Marisse, then dips his brush in a small jar of turpentine and wipes it, stowing it in his case. Marisse moves under the light and twirls for her friend, displaying Chet’s work proudly. Tying her top around her waist, they step into the street and are swallowed by the crowd.
Chet picks up his pen but draws nothing. The people still swarm by coming and going. The parade seems to be thinning out in this section of the street, and people are drifting in and out in a more social way. Chet’s still not drawing anything. Maybe I was wrong. He’s looking into the crowd like it’s a lake and he’s a fisherman. The big one has just gotten away. I don’t blame him if his artistic concentration has dimmed. I’d be a little relieved, actually. It’s good to know that these artists are still human and can be thrown off track by the right human incentive. Like attraction. Appetite. Love.
She watched the parade, pen poised to jot down notes and descriptions, but her mood started to sink again, sucking up her interest in the writing. The wine bottle lay empty beside her. The words “secret” and “mystery” bounced around inside her head, but she ignored them. Instead, she understood what Marisse had said to her friend; she felt like such a deadweight sitting on these steps while the party passed her by. The sight of Marisse being painted brought back the feeling she had had earlier on her walk from the record shop. She put the pad in her purse and went over to where Chet sat contemplating.
“I’m going to mingle,” said Autumn. “I guess we’ll all meet at the club around midnight, when Gaston’s done?”
“At midnight if the crowd thins or before if I overdose on all this. My God, what fine stuff!”
She nodded. Four men set up Congo drums a half block down the street and began to lay down a beat, around which several drifting musicians began to play. Autumn wandered toward them, at first on the fringe of the crowd, then moving tentatively out toward the middle, looking at the faces and the costumes. A young woman handed her a balloon. Autumn smiled at it and then promptly let it go, watching it float up into the darkness. “That’s all it takes,” she thought. “Just let go.” She looked around at several people who had started to dance to the rhythms bouncing around her, and she began to dance along with them, swirling in the street. She was on her way; the faces were beginning to blur with the sounds. She twirled again, and as she slowed, she spotted Lyle and another man heading along the far sidewalk, walking against the route of the parade toward the park. Lyle, in plain clothes, was in the lead, about five yards ahead of the other man, who was in a fool’s costume.
Autumn’s suspicions went into overdrive. What was Lyle doing here when he was supposed to be at the club with Gaston? Hadn’t Gaston mentioned something over the summer about trouble in Lyle’s family, something to do with his father, who was in the Senate? Then in September, Lyle said he thought someone had been following him in Prue. Now, some joker, literally, was following him.
Autumn tagged after them. Intrigued and just drunk enough not to care, she intended to catch up to the joker and put him in his place, but something in the way Lyle moved told her he didn’t want to be caught. So she shadowed them, using the crowd as a screen, all the way down to the park. It felt like hundreds of people milling around, all the early paraders having completed the route. Autumn recognized several costumes, including a short fellow holding a sheep’s head tucked under his arm talking to a woman juggling apples. For the first time, she noticed police mingling among the revelers. She toyed with alerting one of them, but when she momentarily lost the pair, she nixed that idea and plowed ahead. She picked them up again as they weaved their way through the revelers, and, leaving them behind, Lyle moved deeper in among the trees. The fool followed, and so did Autumn.
The crowd sounds faded into the jumbled hubbub of background noise from the city itself, and the clash of white noise and dark woods tilted her senses. Everything seemed to be suspended. The pair had melted into the darkness, so she went forward carefully, listening. Voices came from the trees off the path to her right. Lyle’s quiet voice and another man’s, gruffer but indistinct. She was about to step forward into the grove and see what was going on, when Lyle said clearly, and with anguish, “But I love you, Jacques-Yves.”
Autumn stopped cold with one foot off the path and one foot on. Jacques-Yves response was too low for her to hear, but slightly drunk as she was, she realized this was a place she shouldn’t be, hearing something she shouldn’t be hearing, and seeing something she shouldn’t see. With even greater stealth than she used in following the two men, she backed away. When she thought she was far enough out of earshot, she turned to leave but checked herself again when Lyle yelled out, “What do you mean ‘just politics and money?’” Her original thought about catching up to the joker and kicking his ass came back to her, but for a second time she vetoed the idea. If this was some sort of relationship bust-up moment, Lyle would be hurt enough. He didn’t need to be humiliated on top of it.
Autumn hurried back toward the remains of the Masque not stopping to mingle this time, making her way out of the park. She skirted the reservoir and made her way back to Rue University but further west than the area where she had left Chet. She found Prince Arthur Street and then the club and went inside. Twelve couples sat scattered around the room, and Gaston sat perched on a high, three-legged stool behind a microphone. Autumn fell into a seat at a table in the back. She had descended too far and not far enough. She was drunk, and she was stunned. Retrieving the pad and pen, she started writing a description of what she’d witnessed, but she changed her mind, ripping out the page and tearing it up into tiny bits.
A waiter brought her a glass of wine. Merci. No, she didn’t want the candle lit; she preferred to be in the shadows.
The man withdrew, and she sat, glass in hand, listening to Gaston’s melodies and words, letting her mind cast about for something to write that would be independent of her control and direction. Rational thought was impossible anyway. So she wrote, letting the pen ride across the page, lassoing as many of the random thoughts as it could catch, weaving all the feelings the night had inspired between the subtle sounds of Gaston’s guitar. Pride, anger, promises, secrets, trouble, love – but didn’t those last two always go together? She looked around the room again. How different this scene was from the Red Masque winding down a couple of blocks away.
Patrick arrived around eleven-thirty, and Autumn smoothly closed the steno pad and slipped it into her bag before he sat down at her table. Chet and Lyle came in together near midnight. Chet was rumbling on about the Masque, and Lyle was nodding as if listening, but Autumn noticed that he was light-years away. Gaston finished his set, coming over to the table and announcing he wanted to see what was left of the Masque. Autumn felt content to sit in the cafe, but she said nothing and followed the group outside. They wandered down through the McGill campus and over to Mount Royal Park, but the crowds had gone. There was a little action around the apartments on University, but without the energy of the parade, these gatherings felt like any other college party, only with costumes. Autumn suggested heading back to Prue; however, the others voted to camp out in the room Gaston was using for the night.
Within an hour, everyone was asleep but Autumn. She lay on the bed with Gaston snoring lightly beside her, unable to close her eyes. Sometime near dawn, she took her bag into the bathroom and locked the door. She leaned against the sink, feeling like she was going to cry and not knowing why. No, that was a lie. Of course she knew why. She left the sink and cracked open the bathroom door. Just enough light from the street made its way into the room for Autumn to see the sleeping group. Chet sat propped up in one corner, his head on his chest. Patrick’s boots extended past the end of the foot of the bed where he was stretched out on the floor. Lyle was asleep on the sofa, his arm thrown over his forehead as if fending off blows. Surely, she was putting her own spin on the way he was sleeping, but her heart ached nonetheless. She wanted to go out and take him in her arms, enfold him as a mother would. It wasn’t possible, not in a room full of the other Society members, but even if she and Lyle had been alone, it couldn’t happen. She had no idea how to do that, to embrace someone with maternal care. Add one more item to the list of things she wasn’t good enough to achieve.
Was that why she missed, or ignored, the fact that despite Lyle’s outward appearance of normality his essence was slowly being leeched away? Chet and Patrick didn’t know Lyle as well as she did. Gaston knew him better, but the single-minded focus that he had toward music would have dulled him to the changes in Lyle the same way that she was blinded by her own self-concerns and deficiencies. They both had failed him, she concluded. She would talk with Gaston, and she’d be more watchful herself.
She closed the door again and snapped on the light. After pulling the steno pad out of her bag, she read over the jumble of thoughts that she’d written at the café up to where the words ended mid-flow when Patrick arrived. All of it was trivial and meaningless now, but she stopped herself from tearing out the pages. She was in an emotional whirl and that wasn’t the time to make decisions about quality. Instead, she flipped the page and began to write.
We all know things that we don’t realize we know until something happens to knock what we sense or feel or ignore into the forefront of our brains. And when that happens, whether something is said or seen or both, those things we sense surface unbidden and become part of our conscious knowing, and they make us feel like we should have known them all along. I knew about Lyle. Not what was specifically wrong, I still don’t know that, but that there was something wrong. Then came the confirmation in that tortured cry, “But I love you Jacques-Yves!” What I can’t figure out was the “Just politics!” said with angry disbelief. It’s clear he was repeating something Jacques-Yves said, something that surprised Lyle, something that wounded him, mortally. Something to do with Lyle’s father being a politician? But why would some guy in Montreal care enough about the politics of an American senator to ditch his son? And a step-son at that?
We never know when those moments will come. When we just get blindsided by something that tears into us, and then we suddenly find ourselves into something deeper than we can know. Those depths are dark, but wisdom is being able to plumb that darkness before the moment happens. But I’m not wise. I’m not even good with conscious knowing. Because with all that’s happened tonight, all the concern I’m now feeling for Lyle, I don’t know how or why at the same time, the name of Quinn Gravesend is still in my head. Love and trouble go together. Well, I don’t love him, but trouble is coming. It’s probably the “secrets and mystery.” Damn you, Helene. Damn myself.
Gravesend woke feeling out of kilter, like a piece of music slightly out of time. The remains of his dreams lingered in the form of a knot lodged between his ribs although he couldn’t remember dreaming at all. He chewed at the knot along with his breakfast, trying to recall dream plots and how they could have spawned this feeling of being misaligned. But the answer, like the dreams, lay just beyond the rim of his conscious memory, like the eyes of an animal peering from the underbrush at people around the campfire: simultaneously present and out of reach. By the time he left for the university, he gave up searching, content to let the knot remain. Surely in time something would see fit to dislodge or untie it.
That time came when he opened his office door. Autumn, comfortably ensconced in his desk chair, glanced up from her study of his gradebook with a look of innocence on her face.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Gravesend asked.
“Waiting for you.”
“Close that book!”
“I’m not doing anything to it.”
“Other than thumbing through it, you mean?” Striding to the desk, he reached over and snatched the book out of her hands. “This is confidential; you can’t look at other people’s grades.”
“I wasn’t ‘thumbing’ through anything! I was checking on Lyle, seeing if he really was getting a B+ in your class. And if the gradebook is so damn private, you shouldn’t leave it out in the middle of your desk.”
“My desk is private as well. I don’t expect students to be in my office when I’m not.”
“Then tell your secretary. She let me in.” Autumn leaned back in his chair, her lower lip curling in a pout. “Anyway, it serves you right. You’re late you know. What did you expect me to do while you took your time getting here?”
“You could wait in the reception area for one thing. That is where students are supposed to wait for their professors.”
She returned the remark with a cold stare, then lifted herself out of the chair with a slink that was more sexual than apologetic. Quite an expressionist she was, thought Gravesend, a woman of so many faces and postures, a stage talent that would be lost in the world of musical performance. She wandered over to his bookshelf before sitting down on the piano bench and stretching out her legs. Gravesend regained his chair, and sorted papers, business-like.
“You don’t have any pictures in here,” said Autumn.
“Everyone else does.”
“I have the print.”
Autumn flicked an eye over Dali’s La Persistance de la Mémoire. “Yeah, but so do hundreds of other people. It’s not personal.”
“This is not a personal office; it’s my place of public business. Many people come through here, and I don’t see any reason to have my personal things hanging like flags around the room.”
“You just don’t like people to know you, right?”
“I like my privacy. That may not be popular in this age when everyone is expected to be so open and public, but there it is.”
Autumn lifted her legs and swiveled on the bench, jumping up and strolling over to the state-of-the-art shelf stereo unit on a side table. She lingered in front of the unit for a moment before moving on to the Dali painting, facing away from him, observing the print with her hands clasped behind her back. “Your colleagues know you, though, don’t they?”
“The ones who have worked with me for many years do.”
“But Dr. Spire, my music instructor at the moment, doesn’t know you. I asked him a question about Symphony Number 1967 — my favorite of yours by the way — and he got all flustered. He hemmed and hawed around and went on with his lecture without answering my question. What’s the problem between you two?”
“Dr. Spire and I differ in our opinions about music.” Gravesend chanced a glance in her direction. She still had her back to him, examining the painting or pretending to do so. But her posture had taken on a predatory form, like she was gauging him, testing his movements with the air of one who has the advantage.
He picked up a pen and began marking off assignments in his gradebook. “I infer from your remark that you have listened to my symphonies since the night we spoke at the bar.”
“All of them except The Julia Suite. I haven’t been able to find it. Do you have a copy?”
“Not in the office, no.”
“It’s at home, I suppose, with your personal self.”
“Correct. If the question you put to Dr. Spire concerned whether or not he had a copy of The Julia Suite, I can assure you he doesn’t.”
“That wasn’t it. The question wasn’t important, really. I was only asking it to see how he reacted to your name being brought up in class.”
“And why would you do that?”
Autumn shrugged. “To see if his opinion of your work matched mine.”
Gravesend smiled to himself. So the game was chess, and she was working a gamut to bait him into asking for her opinion of his symphonies. Fine. He was once an aggressive chess player. “And as a student of music in this modern time, what do you think of my symphonies?”
She spun on her heels, and the movement reminded Gravesend of a griffin spreading its wings and opening its talons before striking. The thought was unsettling. People think mythical beasts only live in legends and fairy tales, but Gravesend begged to differ. They live inside us as aspects of our personality, and he had seen enough of the griffin in Julia and other women to be fully fearful in the face of it. Where an animal attacks to devour the surface, the griffin rips the body to expose the soul. A woman bent to such a purpose is at her most powerful and her most dangerous. All the more so when the griffin appears in a young woman who doesn’t have complete grip on the reins. Mrs. Bourgione, his secretary, was no easy touch or simpleton. If Autumn got past her defenses, she was good. Put that together with a rising griffin, and he better tread lightly; this one could wreak havoc.
“I thought you would get around to asking that,” she said. “Do you really want to know what I think?”
“I like hearing the views of all types of listeners; so yes, I value your opinion.”
“Well, I’d love to tell you, but … I think it’s just a little bit too personal.”
“We are alone.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know.” She shook her head and clasped her hands behind her back once more, giving the office a perfunctory inspection. “I think this office is just a bit too public for what I have to say.”
“Spare me your sarcasm and come to the point.”
“Okay. I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll tell you exactly what your music made me think and feel — because it made me do both — but I’ll only tell you at your house.”
“What is this obsession you have with seeing my personal things?”
“It’s not an obsession. As a critic I couldn’t give you a credible analysis without having heard all of your music. Where do you keep a copy of The Julia Suite? At your house. So, that’s where I’ll have to go in order to form my complete opinion.”
Gravesend didn’t immediately respond. Instead, he watched the triumph radiate from her face; no doubt she could feel his soul in her talons. She must be a woman used to winning, thought Gravesend. Pity, she would not be winning today.
“You’re right, of course,” he said aloud. “How inconsiderate of me to not help you in your search for my music.” He scribbled on a pad and tore off the sheet, laying it at the edge of the desk. “It just so happens that the assignment in my compositional theory class for next week is to get to the library and hear all of my symphonies, including The Julia Suite. One of the first class sessions following the Thanksgiving break will be devoted to an open discussion of the works. I’d be more than happy to let you know the exact date before the break, so you can make plans to attend that class. This note will enable you to gain access to the pieces, which are on reserve for only my students.”
“I said I’d only tell you what I think at your house.”
“Then I regret the fact that I will not have the pleasure of hearing your opinion.”
He watched her watch him, eyes locked and the moment tense, much more tense than putting a forward student in her proper place should be.
“Shall I take back the pass?” he said reaching out toward it.
“No,” said Autumn beating him to the note and stuffing it in her pocket with her triumph. Watching her go, Gravesend felt much less joy in beating back the griffin than he expected. The dream knot swelled in his ribs.
Autumn found what she was looking for on the eve of Thanksgiving, an hour before the University library closed for the holiday break. She carried the volume of Contemporary Composers to a desk in a hidden corner of the room and took a long look at the picture on the page. The photograph staring back at her showed a clean-shaven man looking up and away from the camera through thick, black, horn-rimmed glasses. His hair lay on top of his head, parted to the side, affording a more subtle view of the familiar, strong bone lines that stood out in that forehead now. The nose had the same Scandinavian, ruggedly-puttied shape to it, but she was surprised to find that his chin did as well. And a handsome chin it was, although it changed the whole complexion of the face, rendering it almost unrecognizable. In her mind, she superimposed the present-day, close-cropped, gray beard on that face and tossed out the offending glasses. A more familiar Quinn Gravesend appeared.
She turned her attention from the photograph to the text wrapping around it.
Alquin (Quinn) Samuel Gravesend (1936 —): At a time when the composition of classical music was moving into an era of experimentation, Gravesend refused to turn his back on the traditionalists. His compositions, while employing some startling innovations, remained rooted in many traditional structures. The result is a body of work that forms a bridge between traditional and modern theories and instrumentation and provides a springboard for the composers of the latter part of the twentieth century. Despite a relatively small number of completed works, Gravesend’s compositions carved out a place for him in the ranks of classical music’s elite composers.
Gravesend was born near Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, on June 26, 1936, to musical parents. His father, Samuel Gravesend, was a well-known amateur violinist in the Winnipeg area. His mother, Birgitte Kirkegaard Gravesend, first cousin once removed to the Danish philosopher Sø ren Kirkegaard, tutored students in piano and harp and taught music in several local schools.
Birgitte Gravesend found an eager and gifted student in her youngest child. At the age of seven, Gravesend gave his first public performance: a piano piece he composed to commemorate his parent’s 15th wedding anniversary. Gravesend’s interest in and study of music increased with age. He first enrolled in the University of Toronto, where he met Julia Robertson, whom he married in 1962, but Gravesend left the University without taking a degree. He moved on to Les Conservatoire du Montreal, where he devoted himself to the full-time study and composition of music.
Gravesend’s innovative style of blending non-traditional instruments and movement structures with traditional instruments and techniques was showcased in his first symphonic composition, The Julia Suite, a work in four movements for piano, dulcimer and bells. The piece was first performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1961, and while conservatively hailed as “promising” by both classicists and modern performers, The Julia Suite has become the least known and most rarely performed of Gravesend’s works.
After accepting a teaching post at the University of Ottawa, Gravesend composed Symphony Number 1964 and Symphony Number 1967. Both works continued Gravesend’s exploration of traditional thematic structures woven through a host of unconventional time changes, and both pieces were instant critical and performance successes. Hal Galbreath called Gravesend, “a musical alchemist, who is able to blend tradition and experimentation to create compositions of pure gold.”
In 1967, Gravesend resigned his teaching position in Ottawa to accept an invitation to join the music faculty at the North American University of Fine Arts. The change of scenery bore fruit in the guise of Gravesend’s master works: Symphony Number 1970, Symphony Number 1973 and Symphony Number 1976. The three pieces employed such rare symphonic instruments as the sitar and Uilleann pipes and were put through diverse and heretofore untried time changes. Argonne Papaté was the first to identify the three works as a linked trilogy. Since then, the symphonies have been analyzed and exalted as the most important and influential classical masterpieces in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Despite this success and the promise for more to come, Gravesend turned away from the composer’s pen, and since 1978 he has refused to appear in public to perform or conduct. His last public appearance came at the Royal Command Performance in London, during which he performed Symphony Number 1970 on piano. Gravesend continues to hold his post on the music faculty at the North American University of Fine Arts, and, in the past two decades, he has published sixteen scholarly papers on modern classical music and compositional theory.
Leaving the library, Autumn walked through the snowy afternoon along the road that circled the island. The name “Argonne Papaté” brought a gripping but risky thought to mind. It took two passes around the island to ponder it, but once she made up her mind, she hurried across the footbridge to the American side of campus and through the whitening streets to Lyle’s apartment. Gaining the metal stairs, she heard the sound of his piano from the landing outside, so she opened and closed the door as quietly as she could, sinking to the floor next to it. The music seemed to dovetail into her mood and the mood of the day: a late-autumn afternoon fading to winter, fading to night, escorted by flying snow. Lyle ended with a flourish and stretched. He never turned around.
“Either I made too much noise, or you’re getting psychic.”
“Neither. I think my senses get better when I play.”
“That was beautiful.”
“The Kanon always is beautiful. Bach is beautiful.”
“You’re beautiful. I don’t tell you often enough what a magnificent, sensitive musician you are.”
Lyle removed his glasses and wiped his face with a towel. “Am I as good as Gaston?”
“You both touch people but in different ways.”
He bent forward and brushed the top of one of the keys, shyly, almost timidly. “Now that’s a compliment. Thank you.”
There it was again, Autumn thought. His movements, his body, seemed to be both in the room and far away like they always did when he was playing, but there was more, or rather less, to him. His entire self seemed to be shrinking. She had seen this once before when she was about ten. Mrs. Olsavsky, the neighbor who used to make her cookies, died in March, and shortly after the funeral, Mr. Olsavsky started to shrivel. Not physically, but inwardly. She couldn’t have put it in those terms back then as she watched him putter around the yard and rock on his front porch, occasionally reaching out with his foot to lightly tap Mrs. Olsavsky’s rocking chair and set it in motion. In September, he collapsed while mowing the lawn, and two days later, he was dead. “A broken heart never mends,” her mother said at the time. But was Lyle’s heart really broken? He had had relationships in the past, but they were always discreet because of his step-father, Mitchell Kroft. Lyle had described Kroft as a moderate Republican, not well liked by the more radical members of his party. She remembered when Lyle told her that – how he said it with disbelief – as if he couldn’t understand how anyone could not like his dad. When his mother married his step-father, Lyle was six, and he adored the man. So, was Lyle really suffering from a broken heart? Or something less painful and more damaging?
“I sure you didn’t drop by just to hear Bach,” Lyle asked. “So, what do you want?”
“Because I give you a compliment, do I have to want something?”
“No, but you’re sitting on my floor unannounced and as tense as one of these piano wires. So, what’s up?”
“How do you know I’m tense? You haven’t even looked at me since I came in.”
“Heightened senses while playing, remember?” His voice was slow and thoughtful as if the words were traveling from some great distance to get out of his mouth. She watched him turn on the bench. Even his turn was slow, as was the blinking of his eyes behind those wire-rims, like shutters on an abandoned house moving in the breeze. “Okay. Now I’m looking at you, and I see a girl who wants something.”
“I want to know if I can help you in any way.”
Lyle shrugged. “Help me? I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not. I don’t know what’s going on, but it doesn’t feel good. Ever since the night of the Masque. Are you ready to tell me about it?”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“When there is, do you promise to tell me? Or Gaston? Or Chet, Patrick or Mary?”
Lyle smiled. “You want me to tell Mary?”
“Strike that. Me, Gaston, Chet or Patrick. Got it?”
“And make it soon. I’m asking now, but I won’t be asking later.”
“Got it. Now, what do you really want?”
“Yeah, Mr. Heightened Senses, I want something. I remember when you were doing some work for Dr. Brahl earlier in the semester, you mentioned using a master key that Mrs. Bourgione keeps hidden in her desk. I need to know where that key is.”
“I’m not going to tell you.”
He fingered the towel beside him. “If you get caught—”
“You don’t have to lecture me about consequences.”
Lyle turned back to the piano and started playing another song — more modern and rockish. In the place of lyrics, he hummed, and when he finished, he said, “Could you at least tell me what you’re looking for in Gravesend’s office?”
“Who said anything about Gravesend?”
“Autumn. Come on.”
“Look, you’re the one with the heightened senses. You tell me.”
“I just know you mean Gravesend. Am I wrong?”
She got off the floor and sat beside Lyle on the piano bench, fiddling with two keys. “I have a hunch about something, and I need to see if I’m right. It’d take too long to explain, and I don’t know if I could explain it anyway.”
“The key is in the bottom right-hand drawer of Mrs. Bourgione’s desk, inside the margarine container.”
Autumn nodded, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “I’m serious about telling someone about what you’re going through. It feels dangerous to me.”
“I could say the same about you.”
She heard him start into the rock song again as she slipped out the door.
Half an hour later she reached the Music Building. The snow came pouring down, and the cold wetness dripped from her hair onto her face as she climbed the steps to the faculty office complex. The outside door was open; hurdle number one negotiated. She found the master key, made her way down the corridor to Gravesend’s office, and let herself in.
She went straight toward the sideboard where the CD shelf system was and found what she was looking for, what had caught her eye that day she was in Gravesend’s office. The cassette tape case was marked bio #6, and it sat on top of an envelope. She opened the flap and took out the letter. The note, printed on stationary from the Department of Music, Louisiana State University, was dated November 19, 1999.
I wish I could have delivered this in person, but I hope this letter finds you well. Enclosed is the latest recording made on the seventh of this month. I have made my notes from it and am returning it to you for safekeeping, as per our agreement. Once again, I wish not to seem anxious, but I urge you not to erase the tape until I have written and finalized this section of your biography. I am not used to having my research materials out of my hands, and I do not have much faith in my ability to pre-select the information I may need via my notes.
I wish you good health and happiness, and once more I extend the invitation for you to join me for Christmastime at my home in Jamaica. We should have time enough to celebrate the season and complete the final tapes for the project. I hope you will agree to come.
Yours in music,
Autumn double-checked the door lock and loaded the tape in the cassette player. Seating herself in the chair behind Gravesend’s desk, she pressed the play button on the remote control and concentrated on every word:
. Papaté: Why have you stopped composing?
Gravesend: That question implies a conscious choice.
Papaté: The action wasn’t conscious?
Gravesend: Absolutely not. One doesn’t say, “Well that’s that, I’m not going to compose anymore.” That choice is different than choosing a direction at a crossroads. I can’t say for certain that I’m finished. I just feel that I am.
Papaté: Throughout our interviews, you’ve mentioned many times these feelings that seem to guide all you do. Can you explain what it is you feel?
Gravesend: For as long as I can remember, from the time I was very young, I was aware of rhythms that went beyond music. There is a rhythmic quality to all living things, and be it a gift or just a different level of awareness, I was tuned into those rhythms. I learned quickly enough that when I acted in accordance with those rhythms, I was happy. And when I went against the rhythms, I had trouble. As I grew older, I began to interpret the rhythms into music and started to compose. It seemed the natural thing to do. The results were my early symphonies.
Papaté: Including The Julia Suite?
Gravesend: Yes, although that composition was born out of the rhythm of what I was feeling for Julia, who at that time was my fiancée. I explored more general life rhythms in 1964 and 1967.
Papaté: And these rhythms form the elusive critical link between all your symphonies?
Gravesend: Yes. But I didn’t intend for them to be elusive because to me they were natural; I assumed every musician worked on that level of consciousness, so there was no more need to bring them up as there would be in discussing how one breathes. It wasn’t until I reached the next level that I had any inkling that I might be experiencing something that not everyone experienced. I wasn’t certain of that, however, until reading your paper in which you suggested a link between my final three symphonies. Then it became obvious.
Papaté: What brought you to this “next level?”
Gravesend: A book. The Golden Bough. A colleague on the English faculty when I was teaching in Ottawa mentioned it to me during a discussion about myth. I admit to reading only the abridged single volume, not the thirteen volume set, but that was enough to give fuel to some of the theories that had been simmering in my head. The book speaks about the fertility rites and mythic ideals of ancient peoples. For me, it became a profound discovery, one of those seminal books that stay with a person for a lifetime. Passages would pop into my head, which I believed at the time to be random. References from the book began to appear in my lectures, and the more I thought, the more I saw connections between what Frazer reported about mythic concepts of ancient peoples and what I thought about music and the rhythms of life. Well, all of this culminated in the idea that what humans know as ritual could be the method we use to attune ourselves to the rhythms around us. That thought was such a revelation that I began to study myth and human behavior looking for the central rituals in our existence which I then could set to music.
Papaté: Central rituals in the area of modern religion?
Gravesend: I started there, but that avenue died out quickly. Modern religion tends to dilute ritual or turn it into habit. So I began to simply study routines, and I discovered that the key rituals were much more basic than spirituality, more mundane everyday things. Sharing experiences, such as attending a hockey game for example, or the sense of well-being one finds in a familiar object or routine. Even basic expressions such as laughter and crying as an expected response to stimuli could be interpreted as an automatic ritual, in a sense. Then I began to compose around what were, in my view, the most key rituals. Those compositions turned out to be my final three symphonies.
Papaté: Did you see them as a trilogy while composing them?
Gravesend: I thought of them as linked because they all sprang from the same well, but I was not aware that my background ideas created links between the music. Once I read your papers on the subject, I remember clearly saying to myself, “Yes, he’s right!” That is an irony of the artistic process, that others see what we cannot, even though we are the creators—
The sound of a key turning in the lock froze Autumn. The door swung slowly open, then a doughy looking man with thinning hair and a limp entered the room. Mechanically he started for the trash can before the sounds and lights registered in his brain. He looked up with the same fear in his eyes that Autumn imagined were in hers.
“I’m a student,” Autumn said, drawing his gaze, which had been contemplating the voices coming from the stereo. “Mr. Gravesend’s student. I’m doing some research work for him.”
“Who are you?” he demanded in a tone he might have used if he just caught her sneaking out the door.
“I’m a student doing research for Mr. Gravesend,” she said in a louder voice and pressing the stop button on the remote. The voices went silent. “I thought I would come in now, when it was quiet. Mr. Gravesend gave me a key and told me to use his office.”
“Oh,” said the man, clearly relieved but still ruffled by the unexpected break in his schedule. He gave the stereo a suspicious look, shrugged, and picked up the trash can. After he emptied the contents in his janitor’s cart just outside the door, he replaced the can and said, “I ain’t responsible for lights being left on in here.” He slammed the door shut behind him.
Autumn drew a deep breath, pressed the rewind button, and continued the playback.
Gravesend: Of course, I discussed all of these theories with Julia. And that led me to a third level. Working with all the rituals made me keenly aware of my own personal rhythms and Julia’s and how tightly they were intertwined. I remember a notation in one of my journals that said something to the effect that a marriage of the soul is the best way to achieve a true harmony with the rhythms of life. That was to be my next compositional challenge, to interpret and translate that harmony between two people who have joined body and soul.
Papaté: But Julia died soon afterward?
Gravesend: Not just Julia but truly my other half. We were married for fourteen years and not until her death was I aware of the large role she played in my own rhythm. It is not a cliché to say that a good portion of my rhythm died with her. The irony of all my studies is that they led me to the ultimate musical rhythm — that of two people together — but by the time I learned that lesson, Julia was dead. Everything, every note, I composed was literally written with her, if you will. In an instant, all of that was gone. I can teach music, write about it, critique it, and, if I must, conduct a piece. But Julia provided the harmony, the intangible element that enabled me to compose at that high level. I spent the next two years after her death feverishly trying to regain the sound of our rhythm through music, working from memory, but I never succeeded. It just faded. And that’s when I realized I probably would not compose again. I’m sure I could write some good pieces, and maybe my reasoning is selfish, but if I can’t work at the level where I was, exploring rhythms that were leading to the sounds of life itself, I cannot go back to the mundane. Julia died, those rhythms died, so composition died. No reprise, no coda. Piece over. Gravesend at rest.
Autumn rewound that part and listened again. Then, she turned off the tape player and put everything back as it was before she came. But she didn’t leave. She turned out the lights and retook her seat in the desk chair, turning to face the window and think about what she had just heard. The snow continued to fall, and she watched it, aware that it somehow fit in with her thoughts, as if both the snow and Gravesend’s words were falling all around her.
Paradox, to Gravesend, was a minor idea, and one that he never thought to include in his musical explorations of the rhythms of life. He never gave it much thought at all. And like all aspects of life that are neglected when they shouldn’t be, Paradox was now rearing up and devouring him.
He was on his way to teach the class he least enjoyed out of the entire term. “Least enjoyed” was a bit tame. He loathed it. This morning would be the open session on the topic of his own works in the Philosophy of Composition class. As he drove, his mind wandered to the subject of youth, those people waiting to learn from him. How assured they were of their futures, the successes that awaited them, the triumphs. Forget that they didn’t know what success and triumph meant or what cost success and triumph demanded in exchange for coming into one’s life. At this moment, they viewed success like fruit on the bough, merely to be picked, and Gravesend would only be one of many to direct them to the proper tree.
There could be no more distinctive quality of youth than this cockiness of victory assured in everything. He didn’t doubt that for some of his students success was only a matter of time. Indeed, there had been such a time in his life, a time that extended a good many years beyond his youth, when he knew he had the Midas touch; success and triumph were his minions from his first composition until …
Well, he thought, that was the problem with memory and age, wasn’t it? One always reached an until, a wall, a spot in time where the champion finds himself fading from the winner’s circle. Perspectives change then. When viewed from the vantage point of youth, a retreat is merely a setback that delays the eventual victory. But when one matures and views life from the other side, one realizes that each victory really only delays the inevitable loss.
Gravesend frowned at his own thought. What internal jackass or devil made him think such fatalistic trash as that? Was it a Romantic rule that if one lives long enough, one’s self-opinion must sour to the point that one must feel sorry for continuing to exist? The building looming before him was filled with people who thought him one of this fading century’s pillars of music. What happened to the voice inside him who believed he was a champion as well? Most importantly, how did one find that voice again? He didn’t know; he didn’t even know where to begin to look for it, ergo, Paradox.
His thoughts stopped with the car. After a brief moment in his office, he went on to the classroom and made a quick survey of the students while arranging his support materials on the lectern. Everyone present, plus one. Autumn sat with a casual posture, notebook open and a face ready for anything. She was dead ahead of him, third row center, and three seats in front of Lyle Glasser, an arrangement Gravesend found to be strange.
“Good morning. As I hope to make this more of a discussion than a lecture, my opening remarks will be brief. The guiding metaphor in this class has been the hunt for the mythical beast. We have dug into and around, through and back through that metaphor in a variety of ways to understand what is involved in the creative process of composition. We’ve centered on music, obviously, but the analogy holds for whatever art you might choose to pursue. I believe examining works in this way helps students to get past the physical nature of the work-in-progress and delve into the soul of that work. So the exercise I hope to lead you through today will follow that thematic line. We will be examining several of my symphonies, looking for the mythical beast, the underlying reality of each. Now, you might think that I have an unfair advantage. ‘After all, Gravesend,’ you could say, ‘you did write the bloody things.’ But it is the listener or the reader or the viewer who interprets the work, too, and the sum of all opinions about the work, I believe, make up collectively what we term the ‘meaning’ of that work. So let’s get to it. Do we have any opening comments?”
Ms. Green’s hand was the first in the air, as always, and usually her comment was something complimentary toward him. The younger Gravesend would have appreciated the attention. The older Gravesend thought that it was a miracle his cholesterol level hadn’t spiked due to her buttering him up.
“Yes, Ms. Green.”
“I want to say that The Julia Suite is one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever heard. It’s warm, loving, romantic—”
“Romantic,” repeated Gravesend, cutting off her praise before it had the chance to flower. “Do you mean Romantic in the sense of its compositional structure or romantic in the way of a love ballad?”
“Both, I guess.”
He pointed to another student. “Ms. Rochefort?”
“I don’t think the piece is quite as fluffy as that.”
Gravesend enjoyed the look of annoyance on Ms. Green’s face. “Explain, please.”
“I found it to be very erotic.”
Autumn’s hand went into the air.
“Our guest today, Ms. Gilhain.”
“I can see where someone might think that, especially if you study the idea behind The Julia Suite; I mean it was written for your wife at the time of your engagement. That would make it seem erotic. And the music does follow a sexual pattern: toward the end it rises higher, each instrument heightening the pitch one at a time to a crescendo, then falling away in the same manner, until only a piano is left to tap out the final sequence of notes. But if we’re going to talk erotic, Symphony Number 1964 was erotic, almost pornographic in some places. I wasn’t expecting it. It was arousing. Music to make love to.”
Several students clapped in agreement. Ms. Rochefort frowned, and Ms. Green looked embarrassed.
Another student raised her hand and asked, “What’s the mythical beast analogy have to do with the erotic nature, or any nature, of a finished piece?”
“A good question,” said Gravesend. “This would be the perfect juncture to demonstrate the metaphor as a critical tool. What we’ve heard so far were several points dealing with the superficial nature of both The Julia Suite and 1964: romantic, erotic, etc. But in order to find the meaning of those pieces, we must look deeper than the sensual flesh of the works. What beasts were the pieces chasing? Mr. Willis, it’s good to hear a gentleman’s opinion. Go ahead.”
“I think the beast you’re chasing in both pieces is love. Trying to define the music of love or to translate it into music. The two symphonies do it in different ways. The first is kind of the anticipation, you know? The waiting-for-it-to-happen kind of love. And the second one is the … the …”
“The happening of love,” said a fellow in the back, which drew a laugh from most of the class.
“Yeah, right. The actual act.”
“I agree,” Autumn said. “The Julia Suite is more heartfelt, more in love at the beginning, when love is fresh and … I don’t know … promising I guess. I’d say that the beast for it was the promise of love. 1964 is, as he said, more of the physical side of love coming on. Its beast then would be desire and passion. The beast in The Julia Suite is a young, timid thing; 1964’s beast is a roaring, powerful one.”
“Good. Mr. Glasser, you usually have a way of cutting to the heart of a matter; can you add anything to what has already been said?”
Lyle returned the question with a shrug. They locked eyes, and Gravesend directed his
best “you-can-do-better” look toward him. But, nothing came back in return. Gravesend’s first instinct was to force Lyle into some comment, any comment, but with Autumn present, he checked the urge.
“All right, shall we move on to the next topic, Symphony Number 1967?”
The debate raged over the schizophrenic nature of the piece, both driving and intense and relaxed and floating. Autumn didn’t offer an opinion in that discussion, nor for symphonies 1970 and 1973. But when Gravesend introduced the final symphony, 1976, her hand shot into the air.
“I listened to those last three symphonies with a friend, and we both agreed that rather than being able to look at them as three individual works, they had to be seen as one work in three large movements.”
“Would you explain that comment in more detail please, Ms. Gilhain?”
“Well … all your works are emotionally crowded. By that I mean the sensitive listener can feel every note like a punch coming out of the speakers. But in these three, the emotion was thinner. That was confusing until we listened to all three in a row and discovered that the emotion built up through all of them. By the end of 1976, you’re left with this profound sadness because of the realization that this was truly the end.”
Several others nodded in agreement. The two jotters, whom Gravesend, much to his dismay, had not broken from their habit, crowned her comment with a note.
“The sadness,” she continued, “wasn’t something lost and hopeless, but a beautiful sadness, like the way … I don’t know … a rose is sad because it’ll wilt and dry out, or the sound of a flock of geese is sad because it fades away. 1976 just fades away. It was like, subconsciously, you knew it would be the last piece you composed. That gave the symphony an overwhelming power.”
“The suggestion that there is a link between those three symphonies is not new.”
“No, but is the theory that there’s a link between all your symphonies new? I found a link defined by one sound, one feature that I couldn’t isolate until I went back and listened to them all
in one sitting. It’s the way you use the piano to underscore the other instruments, like you’re hiding it in the background for some reason, and then somewhere near the end it bursts out and becomes the key instrument, tying all the others together. In The Julia Suite it came at the very end, and each note hit the center of all the earlier melody lines. In 1967, the piano tinkered in the back like it was just along for the ride until the end of the third movement. Then you jump it to the front of the piece, playing a march-like bridge into the fourth movement where it sails along as one of the featured instruments. By the end, the piano is summing up the entire work while leading the symphony to a close. Why do you hide it and then bring it out in that way?”
“Because it is the only instrument that is capable of doing all that you describe. The piano becomes the favored sound. It is used when the composer wants the listener to feel a certain way, but if you overuse the sound, be it a chord or a note, that sound loses its impact or it damages the surrounding sounds. Likewise, if I use the piano too much, all the other instruments seem weaker.”
“And yet you’ve never written anything just for piano. You introduce all these strange instruments like bagpipes and whistle and bells.”
“For the same reason. The piano’s superiority can raise the other instruments to a higher level. So, I let it shepherd the other instruments along through any given symphony; near the end, I single the piano out to ‘sum up the piece,’ as you say.”
“So, my analysis of a link is correct.”
“I’d characterize it as observant.”
“Good enough for a paper in my music class with Dr. Spire?”
The class laughed again, and even Gravesend smiled.
“It’s a starting point, Ms. Gilhain. Read the critical papers written by Argonne Papaté on my symphonies. He was the first to advance the theory you just described.”
“Never heard of him.”
“You’ll need more study before writing any paper then. He is one of the foremost scholars on American Gospel music and has published some brilliant articles relating Gospel to earlier chants and other forms used in pre-Christian rites. Before that, however, he came to NAUFA on a fellowship in the mid-seventies and took an interest in my work. He published several papers on my symphonies and has kept up with my work as a side interest. He was the first to identify the musical link between my last three symphonies, as well as the first to propose a thematic link between all of my symphonies in some way. What you proposed, Ms. Gilhain, is a technical link. Observant, but not quite all-encompassing.”
“Is there a thematic link?” asked Rochefort.
“One never knows. As an artist, I dare not infringe upon the genius of my critics, even when they have been dissecting my works for the past two decades in an attempt to find such a link. Nonetheless, Dr. Papaté is a brilliant fellow. If there is a link, I’m sure he’ll find it.”
“But you have to have something to say about it,” said Willis. “You’re a critic, too.”
“I have several comments to make, and I have made them: in my notes and papers, which are locked away in a vault. Upon my death, they are willed to Dr. Papaté, who has agreed to produce them in the appropriate form. In short, I’ll answer your question when I am dead. And speaking of dead, our time is nearly gone; so, are there any other comments?”
The only response was the shifting rasps of book bags being loaded up for departure. Gravesend nodded, wished them a good day, and went to his office. He settled into his chair while turning toward the window. He didn’t feel like moving quickly to leave. He felt tired, more tired than he could ever remember feeling following a class. Age had crept in. Autumn mentioned things fading into oblivion, and at that moment, he felt like one of those things: fading into a shadow, fading like the daylight at dusk.
As if on cue, he heard a knock at the door and swiveled around to find Autumn halfway between the door and his desk.
“When’re you leaving?” she asked.
“In about fifteen minutes. I needed some time to collect my thoughts. Why do you ask?”
“Look,” she began with a tone of sincerity and modesty he never imagined she could reach. She was looking away from him, as if embarrassed to meet his eyes. “I haven’t been very serious around you, and I know I can be bold and bitchy and tricky, which means people don’t often take me seriously when I am being sincere. But I’m being sincere now, and I want you to understand that what I’m about to ask I am serious about. Okay?”
“If you say so.”
She squared herself to him, now, clear-eyed and intent, so intent that Gravesend’s became alert. He could see her griffin’s wings spreading in silhouette behind her.
“There is something I want to tell you … about today. Something I couldn’t say in class, and I can’t say it here, either. I don’t know why I have this need, and if you absolutely refuse, then I’ll just have to say what I want to tell you right here and never bug you about it again. But … I need … I would really consider it a great favor if you would let me say what I have to say at your house.”
“I know, I know. This is an intrusion and it’s really out of line, but I’m just saying what I feel. I don’t have any good reason to ask, but could I anyway? Please?”
Gravesend studied her face. What a strange thing it is to see a person one thinks one knows with a wholly new expression. How that person appears to be completely different but also more familiar. Autumn, who could be so cagey and who used misdirection like a magician, was standing in front of him with an earnestness so genuine that she looked vulnerable. To her, this was a deal-breaker, and Gravesend could recognize a crossroad when he came to one. He could say “no” and send her on her way and be reasonably sure he would never see her again. But if honesty were going to rule the moment, he had to admit that he wasn’t ready for that to happen. He said he wanted his privacy, and he meant it. However, if he followed that desire down to its root, he understood that his privacy was the weather stripping he used to seal himself off from reminders and emotions connected with his life before Julia died, a life when Gravesend and his house were open and well-trafficked. For whatever reason, this young woman had become a persistent wind. She annoyed him. She aggravated him. She threw him off balance. But the truth of the matter was that it had been a long, long time since he felt that pride when a newcomer got bowled over by the house and the life that he and Julia had built. It was that pride and desire he detected in his voice when he heard himself say, “Come along, then.”
“Really? Great!” She backed toward the door. There was no sign of victory on her face, only relief. “I have Gaston’s car so I’ll meet you at your place in twenty minutes.”
That pride turned queasy as Gravesend was getting into his car. Some invisible line had just been crossed, and, like all lines, he knew that once it was crossed it could never be redrawn again. He could excuse putting a toe over the line from time to time when it came to school decisions, but he had just invited to his home a person who was, for all intents and purposes, a dangerous stranger. It had taken him a week to rid his mind of the psychic paw marks left by the Home Society’s soirée in September. For nearly a quarter of a century, he had made a habit of politely steering away interviewers who hinted that his home would be a much more relaxing setting for their work than his office at the University. He avoided checkout lines in stores where one of his students was stationed simply because he didn’t want students to see what he bought for his personal use or consumption. Home was home, school was school, music was music, and life worked better if the three roads never converged. But along with the queasiness, a sense of relief, albeit with trepidation, was palpable.
The queasiness, relief, and trepidation continued to mix together in an uneasy stew as he watched Autumn walk up to his front door. He swallowed all three with a smile as he held the door for her. She walked in past him, hanging her coat and purse on a branch of the coat tree, and viewed the hallway in a slow whirl, clasping her hands in front of her and leaning in toward Gravesend.
“I’m ready for the guided tour.”
They started with a quick look at the kitchen, and then Gravesend gestured for Autumn to turn right and enter the dining room. Each room had a special, elegant item, and Gravesend noted that none of them escaped Autumn’s eye. In the dining room, she paused first at the painting that had thrilled Mrs. D’Abonne, then at the carved oval table and high-backed chairs, commenting that they looked like thrones from medieval times. In the formal living room, she sank into the eighteenth-century Queen Anne’s chair and tossed Gravesend a coquettish smile. And in the sitting room, she ran a finger along curliqued hair and beards of the godheads stationed at each corner of the castle-like coffee table and pointed at the reproduction of the same faces carved into the joints where the floor-to-wall bookcases came together.
“This is really cool,” she said. “Who decided on the theme of this room?”
“Julia. She designed all of the rooms, except for the Great Room.”
“The Great Room? Is that where your piano is?”
“Patience. You’ll see that in time.”
They exited the sitting room, and Autumn pointed to the staircase in the middle of the central hallway. “Up we go?”
She ran her hand up the carved banister all the way to the top. After gaining the landing on the second floor, she stepped into the first bedroom on the left and crossed the room to the bank of windows forming the far wall.
“What a view of the city! Your bedroom?”
“No. We planned this to be the guest room, although Julia would sleep in here if I were composing late at night.”
Autumn plopped herself down on the canopied bed. Kicking off her shoes, she curled up on the thick coverlet. “Does the fireplace work?”
“Of course. Each room on the second floor has one. But other than a few of them, they haven’t been lit in many years, I’m afraid.”
“This’ll be my room if I ever get too drunk to leave sometime.”
She rolled over onto her back and stretched, arching her chest and her stomach. Then she closed her eyes and put her arms behind her head, stretching again, this time to extend herself down the middle of the bed from pillow to foot rail. Gravesend retreated into the hall and quietly pulled his bedroom door closed, then came back to the doorway to the guest room, but didn’t enter. Climbing off the bed, Autumn brushed past him with a smile. She glanced into the library and the two bathrooms before turning her attention to the two rooms facing the front of the house. One had a standard size doorframe, but the room next to it featured a wider entrance with double doors.
Autumn pointed to the room fronted by the standard door. “This your bedroom?”
“And you’re not going to open it, I take it.”
She nodded before stepping over to the closed double doors, and finding them locked, she knocked on the oak with her knuckles. “What’s in here?”
“An extra room. I don’t use it anymore.”
“Is there an attic?”
“Just a crawl space, not high enough for you to stand straight, let alone me.”
“What about this Great Room you mentioned?”
“Ah! Follow me.”
Gravesend led her back down the back staircase which deposited them in the kitchen. He pointed to the round, hewn door in a recess opposite the entrance to the dining room. Instead of a doorknob, a thick leather thong hung from the three o’clock position.
“Pull that and step inside, but be careful; there’s a step down into the room.”
The door creaked open and Autumn dropped her foot down onto the flagstone before the door. Light streamed in through the clerestory windows high up on both side walls, making the arching ceiling seem higher than it was. Two rows of stone pillars conspired with the stone floor to form a wide path down the center of the room, leading to a group of chairs before a cavernous hearth that reached nearly halfway up the far wall. Candle holders extended from every pillar, each holding a thick electric candle. To the immediate left stood a concert grand piano, which
would have dominated any normal room but had the appearance of a dollhouse piece in this one.
“Wowzer! Is this place cool!”
“This used to be where we entertained, and I dare say the room got a lot of use. It’s quite romantic at night, with the fire lit and the electric candles guttering. We would set up a table in the back with the food on it and some discreet floor lamps to round out the lighting. But that was in another age. Thus, we conclude our tour of Gravesend Manor.”
He stood at the open doorway, indicating that they should leave, but Autumn remained, doing a slow spin and taking one final, appraising look at the room.
“The perfect setting for a Society meeting.”
“Please, don’t connect my home with any visit by any society in this city. I’ve already performed my charity in that line by allowing the Home Society to prowl through my house, and I’m not anxious for an encore.”
“It’s not that type of society. I’m talking about an old-fashioned arts society made up of musicians, an artist and a would-be-writer: Société de l’Esprit Artistique.”
“Ah, yes. I saw that name on the exhibit in the Art Gallery last month. It was a rather good show.”
“That was our artist, Chet Kunzler. Gaston, Lyle, we’re all in it. Everyone would love this room! It feels like a place to touch the creative, especially in winter. What about a Christmas party? We could get some food and drinks, and play music, write and paint or draw, depending on Chet’s mood.”
“So, you are part of that group? Several of the faculty members were talking about the Society, wondering who the members are. How dim-witted of me not to have guessed that Mr. Gunn and you are involved.”
Autumn’s face went dark. “Look, no one’s supposed to know about that, about who is in the group. It was stupid of me to, you know—”
“Your secret is safe with me, as long as the secret of my house is safe with you.”
“It is, at least until we have the Society gathering here. Then, you’ll be an accomplice.
“But then everyone will see the house. As delightful as that sounds, I’m afraid a Christmas party cannot happen. I have plans for the holidays. Besides, aren’t all of you going home over Christmas break?”
“Patrick’s going back to England. I might go to Pittsburgh or stay here with everyone else. I don’t know. But, we could do it before Patrick leaves. A Winter Solstice party. I could arrange everything.”
“I must decline; I’m sorry.”
“What, you don’t want amateurs working in the room where you wrote all your great compositions? Wait, you didn’t compose in here. You used your studio for that.”
“The room behind the locked double doors. Your ‘extra room.’ Do I look that stupid? You said your wife used to sleep in the guest bedroom when you composed late, and in a house this size, I’m sure the piano in this room wouldn’t have bothered her. I bet you have a whole studio set-up in that locked room, a room you’ve kept shut tight since the day you stopped composing.”
She threw back her hair and gave him a knowing smile. The griffin’s smile. His queasiness kicked into overdrive again.
“So, will you think about hosting the party?”
“If you truly are trying to convince me to have your friends over to my house, you must stop using words like ‘society’ and ‘host.’ Neither go very far in persuading me to lend my house out for an evening. Now, I have given you the tour you so eagerly wanted. I believe you said something about having a comment to make, one that couldn’t be said at the college?”
“Right. I want you to compose again.”
Gravesend laughed. “Just like that, eh?”
“Yeah, just like that.”
“I’m not sure that composing is possible.”
“That’s what Gaston said you’d say. Why? Why is it so damn impossible? I don’t understand.”
“No, I’m quite sure you don’t. And frankly, I don’t think I could explain it to you so that you could understand. All I can tell you is what I have been telling people for more than twenty years. I never said I wouldn’t compose again. Up until now, I have not. But I cannot say with any conviction that I will or will not compose again in the future.”
“Not even during a Winter Solstice party for the greatest artistic society of the modern era?”
“Not even for the greatest artistic society of the modern era. Neither having a party here nor composing again is feasible.”
She brushed past him and out of the Great Room. Gravesend followed, closing the door, and found her standing in the doorway between the hall and the dining room, watching the light rain mist the panes of glass.
She put up her hand. “Before you say it, I know, you don’t want people in your house; this is your private place, and I’m sure I don’t fully realize the privilege granted unto me for having been allowed to view it once. But maybe you should think of it this way: if I hadn’t come here today, I never would have opened your locked room.”
“I’m not talking about the room upstairs. I’m talking about in here.” She came to him and lightly tapped the breast pocket of his dress shirt. “You’ve been locked away for far too long, Quinn Gravesend. That’s truly your locked room. But you opened it, briefly, at the lecture today, and the key you used was your art, your music. You should’ve seen and heard yourself. Your voice swelled, and you looked happier than I’ve ever seen you. That’s what art does for you and for us; it brings out the spirit in us, which is the only goal of our Society. We don’t care about grand parties or house tours. We arrive, light the fire, and let the night and creativity take us wherever. You don’t have to take any larger part in creating anything other than providing the place for it to happen. That Great Room is aching to be used. Won’t you just think about it? Please? Isn’t there any kind of a deal we can strike, something you need that I can help you with?”
Gravesend thought for a moment, facing the painting in the dining room, deliberately looking over Autumn’s head. “You want to negotiate, do you? Fine. Perhaps we can make a deal. I’ll think about permitting a gathering for this Society of yours and Mr. Gunn, if you will work on getting a member of your group motivated in my class once again.”
“He’s sliding rather sharply, and if he’s not careful, he’ll slide straight out of the course with an “F.” Earlier in the semester, I counted him the brightest, most promising student in the class, one of the brightest I have ever had. But in the past three weeks, he has dropped off the end of the earth, and although he comes to every class, he rarely seems to be present. Like today.”
Autumn scowled and didn’t reply.
“Autumn? Is there a problem?”
“Yes. I mean, no. Lyle’s quiet by nature, but over the past several weeks, he’s been more than quiet, even at the Society’s get-togethers. It’s exactly like you said: present but not present.” She stopped, opened her mouth to say something, and then closed it again. The scowl deepened.
“You think he’s in some sort of trouble?”
She shrugged, the scowl remaining. “I don’t know. I see him all the time. But if someone who doesn’t see him as much is picking up on something … I don’t know.”
“So, we have a deal?”
She nodded. “Deal. I’ll kick him in the ass about your class, about all his classes.”
“And I’ll consider having your people here.”
She put on her coat and stepped to the door, but instead of opening it, she laid a hand on the flat surface and then turned back around to Gravesend. An embarrassed half-smile made its way across her face as she put her arms around him in a gentle embrace. She had enough height to lay her head against his shoulder bone, and Gravesend found himself pressing his cheek against the back of her head.
“A hug’s not much,” she said breaking the embrace and smoothing the buttons of his shirt with her hand, “but that’s the only way I can express how your music makes me feel. That’s what I really wanted to tell you here that I couldn’t tell you in class.” She pulled open the door, and Gravesend watched her saunter out toward her car. As she opened the car door, he closed the door to his house and stood, thinking.
Paradox. Yes, he had been negligent in studying it.
Patrick handed Autumn her beer and took the seat across the table from her.
“Did Gaston tell you about the party?” Autumn asked.
“Now, be a bit more specific with that question; Gaston’s told me of a hundred parties since August.”
“Did Gaston tell you about the Society meeting at Quinn Gravesend’s house on the 20th of December? And more importantly, will you be able to come?”
Patrick took a deep draw on his cigarette and blew a stream of smoke out of the corner of his mouth, away from Autumn. “No and yes. He didn’t say a word about it, but my plane leaves on the 22nd.”
“Good. When will you be coming back?”
“After the New Year, sometime around the fifth. My mum wants me to go and see the entire family and all that. Ever read James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead?’”
“I saw the movie.”
“Righto. Anyway, remove the maid from the story, and you’ll have an accurate view of the Mallard family Christmas dinner. So, we’re going to the Master’s house, are we?”
“That’s the name some of the seniors in the music program call him. Because he’s so far above the other professors, I suppose. A legend. The sort of fellow you can’t approach without feeling just a bit of awe. Who got him to agree to this party?”
“Actually, it was me. He gave me a tour of his house, and you can’t believe this one room. It looks like a hall in an old castle. It’s a perfect place for a Society meeting.”
“Sounds interesting. Mind if I ask a personal question?”
“Is there any romance between the two of you?”
“You seem to be quite thick with him, and there’s been some talk within the group. Nothing sordid or serious, only curiosity. So, I’m asking is there any romance going on between the two of you?”
“Our relationship is friendly. That’s it.”
“A relationship is it?”
“You know, other than the accent you’re as gutter-bound as American men.”
“The question isn’t such nonsense, you know.”
“Yes, it is nonsense. The guy fascinates me, okay? He has some brilliant musical theories that say a lot about life, and you said yourself that his symphonies are legendary. I mean, imagine if your professor was Mozart or Gershwin? That’s pretty attractive. But that doesn’t mean we’re screwing around. Yes, I feel drawn to him, but it’s not sexual.”
“What sort of draw is it then?”
“I don’t know, just a draw. We connected. There’s something about him that, well … draws me. I mean, can anyone truly know what attracts them to someone else? Can you explain why you’re attracted to Mary?”
“Sure. My dad.”
“My dad has always been extraordinarily attracted to Asian women. Obsessed you might say. A lot of Englishmen are.”
Patrick held out his hands, palm upward, and pretended to weigh something in each. “Princess Di or the Queen Mum. English women lean toward being slender with little figure or matronly. Now, there are some beautiful English women, but they are mostly of those two body types. Even with immigration rising in England, when you step outside the cities, you see fair complexions, long faces, slender or matronly body types.”
Autumn pointed to her own cheek. “What’s wrong with a fair complexion?”
“Nothing, in amongst many other complexions. America’s a smorgasbord of looks and body types. But we live in Salisbury, not London, and when ninety percent of the women have the same look, and the majority conform to two body types, there isn’t much variety. Now, pop in an Asian woman, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, it doesn’t matter; she’s going to look exotic.”
“Wait a minute. Mary’s American.”
“She’s Asian-American, born to Chinese parents, both of whom came here when they were in their twenties. In fact, her parents met on the trip to America. That’s what I mean about the smorgasbord American population. Mary’s an American, but she looks Chinese.”
Autumn shook her head. “You’re kidding, right? I mean about your dad?”
Patrick grinned. “It gets worse. My dad’ll see an Asian woman, and he’ll tug at my mum’s arm. She’s almost as fascinated by Asians as he is, and then, they’ll discuss it. Strange. I have peasant parents, and they have global children, another reason why Christmas dinner can be contentious. But you asked about my attraction to Mary, and there it is. I have bred within me the Englishman’s obsession with Asian females, which is why, when I look at Mary, she appears to be the most lovely, exotic creature I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
“That explains some of it anyway. But you and Mary are totally mismatched.”
Patrick lit another cigarette and flicked the match into an ashtray. “You say that because you don’t like her; you don’t think she’s mad about her art the way the rest of us are. Well, let me tell you something, Autumn Gilhain. You’re bloody well right.”
“Yes. On that one point only. She doesn’t have an all-consuming passion for her art. But thinking she has no talent is dead wrong. Simply put, she’s a lovely writer, a sensitive soul, a word conjuror. You don’t really know her as I do. You see ‘Expected Mary.’”
“‘Expected Mary’? What the hell’s that mean?”
“Mary has this ability to conform to whatever she’s doing at the moment. She’s in with us now, an artistic lot, so she puts on the artistic face. Only, that’s not truly who she is. Mary’s no bohemian, but she can play that role. The trick is she has the talent. Her ability is real, but her actions are a facade. She is ‘Expected Mary,’ playing the part she’s expected to play. When I told her once that she was beautiful, she said, ‘Yes, I am, but female poets are ugly, right? Beautiful people inspire poetry, they don’t write it.’ Nonsense that, but she believes it.”
“I believe it, too.”
“What’s this now?”
“I tell myself that I don’t like her because she’s shallow and untalented. But underneath maybe I’m shallow and untalented, and I turn that on Mary, then hate her for it.”
Patrick stubbed out the remains of the cigarette. “Rubbish. My God, I hold you up to her as an example. ‘Look at Autumn,’ I said once. ‘She’s talented and beautiful and dedicated to her art. You can be the same.’”
“Oh, good move! I’m sure that’s just what she wanted to hear. If I were her, I would’ve ripped your tongue out through your nose.”
“She didn’t talk to me for three days.”
“You deserved it. So, who is the real Mary Han?”
“The real Mary Han is an American suburbanite. She’ll take her degree and wind up employed as an advertisement writer or something in that line. She’ll be splendid, of course: make a lot of money, raise a family and live out her life. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not the life I want.”
“What do you want?”
“That’s the key question now, isn’t it? I’m a thoughtful wanderer. I like to keep my eyes open for the opportunity and then seize it. I don’t know what that opportunity is, but I have some parameters. I would like it to involve music. It must be something that grips me in its claws and won’t let go. Then I’m after it, and let it take me wherever it may. I’ll go. Like coming to this school. I read about NAUFA, researched it, and the more I learned, the deeper its fingers dug into me. I had to come. I’ll probably leave the same way. Not on a whim, mind you, but in the throes, as the poets say.”
“I think I understand what you mean.”
“And I understand that Autumn Gilhain is a witch.”
“I started a conversation meaning to learn the secrets of the Master and you, and I end up going on with these personal tales about me.”
“Getting people to talk about themselves is one of my many great talents.”
“Along with humility.”
“Forget humility. It’s a false virtue. Gilhain is Irish. I’m proud, strong, able to drink most people under the table, temperamental” — she put on a teasing smile — “beautiful.”
“That stereotype fits you better than it fits the true Irish. Add to that you are cocky, vulgar, self-centered and brash, and the Irish tag won’t stick. The Irish are more refined in all things, except joy and conversation. They’re mad with celebration and talk. So, don’t be so bloody quick to hang the Irish tag on yourself. No, Autumn Gilhain is a Celtic woman, not an Irish one, I say. Hold on.” He went to the bar and returned in a minute with two more beers. “Celtic?” Autumn asked, taking her mug from him. “Doesn’t that mean primitive and crude?”
“After a fashion, yes.”
“You’re one hell of a sweet-talker.”
“I can talk like a nightingale sings, love. Unlike you who spits out words like a volcano. No, don’t protest that. What was it you said a minute ago? You’d rip my tongue out through my nose for saying what I did to Mary? Proves my point, doesn’t it? That’s a Celtic response, which isn’t meant as an insult. The Celtic women of old were tall and beautiful, but quick to anger and terribly nasty when angry. They were fierce enemies but passionate and seductive lovers. Now, deny that description doesn’t fit Autumn Gilhain.”
“Maybe. And maybe not. Maybe I’m more like Mary than you’re aware of. We do have something in common, you know.”
“I’m not sure I should say now. It’s something illegal.”
“Then you have no link to Mary Han. She never committed an illegal act in her life.”
“Well I have committed them, and I’ve had them committed against me. But what I’m talking about is illegal in a social sense, a crime against art and friendship, although artistic enough to my nature.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“There’s a notebook.”
“Nearly two notebooks. About the Society. Our Society. I’m writing them, recording what it is we do.”
She scrutinized his face, waiting for the barometric expression to fall, but she saw no reaction. He seemed to be waiting for the punch line.
“It’s something I started at the very beginning, in the planning stages for the Society. To tell you the truth, I don’t know why I did it. Maybe I wanted a record of what we did just so I would have something to look at and remember this group by years later after we go our separate ways. I’ve never been a part of anything like this Society. An old separation fear of mine, I guess. Whatever. But the notes and observations and commentary are leading me down paths I never knew existed, down to what’s inside me. Now when I sit in at Society meetings, I play my music, but I’m really listening, watching, absorbing it all. When I go to the bathroom or the bedroom, I frantically note down all I’ve absorbed since the last trip. And when I read it later, I don’t believe it. Patrick, what’s in those notebooks is really excellent. I’m not just being cocky. It really is good stuff.”
“And what are your plans for these notebooks?”
“I don’t know. Being around you and Gaston and Lyle and even Chet has brought me down as a musician. You’re all geniuses who come out with this incredible stuff, and I’m not capable of playing and composing at that level. Maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated with Quinn. He doesn’t make me feel like I’m competing and losing. Anyway, one of the things I’ve discovered by writing in the notebooks is that I love writing, and I think I’m good at it. Maybe this will become a novel or non-fiction book. Or maybe I can blend the two arts into a recording of songs or an opera. I don’t know. I don’t have a plan; I’m just pursuing it. After hearing what you said about going after what you want with a passion, I thought you would be the one who would understand.”
“I wouldn’t claim understanding of the female mind in general, yours in particular, but thank you. Does Gaston know of these notebooks?”
“No! Jesus, no one does.”
“What’s this something that caused – what did you call it – separation fear?”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“The Master affects that too, in some way, doesn’t he? Which is why you’re drawn to him?”
“Maybe he does.”
“I’m only looking after him, you know. He’s a bloody good teacher by all accounts, and a musical genius in any age, which means more in my part of the world than yours. I don’t think you should let him drift into your Celtic heart — and anywhere else he may drift — ill-prepared.”
“I told you—”
Patrick held up his hands in surrender. “I’m saying what I think only because I must dash. Mary’s class will be finishing soon, and I promised to meet her afterward. We may be coming back. Will you be here?”
“I don’t know. My Celtic stomach is kind of hungry. Maybe I’ll be out trying to catch some unsuspecting animal and then eat it raw.”
“And after you leave the Master’s house?”
“Go to hell!”
Patrick stood, drained his mug and gave Autumn a wink. “Until later, you Celt.”
A sweet ache overcame Gravesend as he stood on the threshold of the Great Room. This room, his most favored in the house, always looked its best when arrayed for a party, and the half-lit shadows in the mellow light of the hearth fire lent the final ingredient to the character and the magic of the room. On this night, Autumn and her friends, as well as students from his Philosophy of Composition class, made up the guest list. There was Gaston Gunn atop the back of the couch, feet extended along the arm, his back against the last stone pillar. He wore the guitar but no sunglasses. There was the hearty fellow Autumn introduced as Chet Kunzler enstooled before his easel near the food table, being observed by three of Gravesend’s students. And Lyle Glasser? Gravesend expected him to be at the piano, but Patrick Mallard and one of the Philosophy of Composition students occupied that seat.
From his vantage point, Gravesend counted thirteen heads. He peered into the darker areas and spied Glasser sitting against the wall, barely visible inside one of the shadow pockets. That made fourteen. He was the fifteenth and Autumn was the sixteenth, the number who had come through the door so far. But Autumn was not in sight.
He ducked back into the kitchen and searched the first floor, then the upstairs. He found her in the master bedroom, standing in front of his desk. In her gray-green knit sweater and gray knit cap, she looked every bit like fall moving into winter, the color of light on a winter’s day beneath rolling gray skies.
The creak his foot on a loose floorboard made her spin so hard she nearly lost her balance. She held a pen and a steno pad in her hands.
“What’re you doing here?” she asked.
“I might ask you the same question.”
“I needed something to write with.” She looked down at the things in her hands and coolly tossed the pen back onto the desk while stuffing the steno pad inside her purse. “And, I needed some privacy.”
“There are pens in every downstairs room and plenty of private spaces in a house this size. What are you writing that demanded so much privacy for yourself that you had to infringe on mine?” Gravesend came into the room and surveyed the top of the desk. A few bills and two letters, one from a colleague in Germany and another from his sister-in-law, were the only items in sight.
“Boring stuff, but important to me. I’m sorry. Come on.” She took his hand in hers. “I was just coming down to rejoin the party. Unless you came up here to get me alone?”
“You say such things to throw the person you’ve angered off balance, but if I catch you in here again, the only thing I’m going to throw is you out of this house. Do you understand?”
She nodded, but her smile remained undiminished. Gravesend shook his head and let her lead him back downstairs to the Great Room. Most of the guests had migrated to the chairs that Gravesend had placed around the piano, except for Kunzler, who remained at his easel, Gunn on the couch, and Glasser in the shadows. The talk had turned to obscure love songs. A student named Jamais Shears took a pair of bongos out from under the piano and sat cross-legged in front of a chair, tapping out a rolling rhythm. He sang a song weaving in and out of English, French, and Swahili. When he finished, the listeners broke into applause.
“Grandmother’s song,” he said, holding up one hand. “I don’t know what it means, but I could sing it from the time I was a child.”
A student at the piano tinkered out a version of Randy Vanwarmer’s Your Light, and as he was hitting the last few notes, Gunn strummed a segue into a slower, more raw version of Dylan’s Tangled up in Blue.
“That’s no love song, Gunn!” Kunzler called out.
But Gunn continued. When it came time for the vocal, he lifted his head and sang, and in that singing, the feel of the room changed from a cavernous, firelit hall to a place open to the air with dusty sunlight slanting down through the trees. The sound of the words, not the words themselves, floated around Gravesend, around the room. The chattering that had been going on during the first two songs quieted. Autumn, standing between Gravesend and a pillar, leaned toward him until her shoulder and head fell against his arm, but her eyes remained on Gunn.
Gravesend looked at her, at her hair spilling out from under her cap and onto both his sweater and hers. His gaze followed those curls and waves down past her shoulders to her breasts, and he found himself wondering about the shape of those breasts without clothing to fetter them.
The thought froze him for an instant, and then he snapped his head up and away from her body, expecting to see people staring at him as if his thought had been broadcast through the room. No one else had moved, but the spell in Gunn’s voice lost its grip on him. He searched for a neutral place to focus, anywhere away from Autumn. He looked beyond Gunn’s outstretched feet and over the top of the piano, and that’s when he met Glasser’s eyes staring back at him from the shadows. At first he thought, somehow, that Mr. Glasser had intuited what he had just been thinking, but even as he felt his face begin to burn with embarrassment, he saw that wasn’t the case. Glasser was staring right through him, and, for all he knew, through the wall behind him. Gravesend watched the young man’s body tense. Gunn’s song acted like a winch drawing a pail full of pain from a shallow well inside Glasser. Gravesend tracked it until that pain splashed all over Glasser’s face. Gunn’s melody turned mournful in Gravesend’s ears. Tangled up in Blue. Tangled up in sorrow. Tangled up in a web unbreakable. That’s what Glasser’s expression was saying to him, and in that instant he recognized not only his student’s predicament but his own. Gravesend couldn’t tell what web had ensnared Mr. Glasser, but what had caught Gravesend had become very clear: a sexual attraction to Autumn.
The thought triggered his flight reflex, but he couldn’t move. The gravity of emotion spilling out of Mr. Glasser’s gaze was both too painful to watch and too fascinating to leave. Gunn swept the song aside in three final downward strums, and the room erupted with applause. An enthusiastic student jumped up directly in front of Gravesend and broke the visual link with Glasser, so Gravesend wasn’t sure what happened next. He heard what sounded like a squeal, then the short, quick pounding of hard-soled shoes on the stone floor, and he felt the group take a collective step back. The student standing in front of him moved away in time for Gravesend to see Glasser literally push Mr. Willis off the piano bench and onto the floor where he sat with a look both dazed and confused.
“You want emotion?” Glasser yelled. “I’ll give you emotion!”
Glasser played the opening chords of a rock song Gravesend didn’t know. The young man’s hands worked the piano like a professional, but his body shook, tears ran down from his eyes, and the anger and emotion rushed through his throat like a prairie wind forced into a tunnel.
Go all the way back to the moment you first came
All the times we had together, times of sun and games.
You in a shirt and tie, me in something blue
What I wanted most of all was to be a man like you.
A man, a man – what’s that phrase really mean?
It’s to keep a dream together, to know the in-between.
So I walked a road away from you, out another door.
I sat in all the shadows, and I sweated every score.
And there’s more, and there’s more, and there’s more
Always, always more.
The sinking of the sun, then the waves, then what’s
Closest to the shore.
The emotion Glasser was expelling reached such a level of violence that the sensory vibrations Gravesend picked up made him hurt. And the sounds were still cresting, not falling back. Gravesend tried to deflect some of the sensory waves by looking around the room, but doing so became as surreal as the song. Everyone else had turned to stone. Willis remained on the floor looking up at Glasser. Gunn’s guitar dangled from his neck unrestrained. Kunzler sat half-turned on his stool, indistinguishable from the paint on the canvas; only the drop of brown on his brush was in motion, falling to its end on his leg and pooling in a line following a crease in his jeans. And Autumn? She had disengaged herself from his shoulder and leaned forward, taking in every word Glasser was singing as if the song were explaining all the secrets she ever wanted to know.
There’s a greater purpose sitting inside every lie
I bore every contradiction and I wore the suit and tie.
Sons are sons forever, and loyalty’s the aim
To the lonely point when it’s no longer just a game.
But alone in the sea with the sharks on every side?
Shall I let them bite my heart so you’ll run away and hide?
What’s red isn’t red enough: Let it wash away the strand?
Shall every single in-between become another also-ran?
The song segued back into the chorus “And there’s more, and there’s more, and there’s more” but instead of moving through that verse, Glasser moved into a crescendo, pounding the keys and repeating “and there’s more” in a voice so primal and filled with anguish that the sound stuffed the chamber beyond even its ability to echo. Then the music went out of tune as Glasser, still repeating “And there’s more,” began to pound the keyboard with the sides of his fists. Gravesend heard the cracking of wood at the same time Shears and Mallard came out from the shadows to restrain Mr. Glasser. It took both of them to do it. At this point, Gunn and Kunzler were scrambling toward the piano, with Autumn following. Gravesend felt the urge to flee overcome all other sensations, so he grabbed his jacket and left.
The temperature had dropped into the teens; nevertheless, Gravesend plowed through the empty streets, cutting through the cold rather than the other way around. He avoided pools of light from the streetlamps as if they were pools of water. He ducked behind parked cars or poles at the approach of headlights. He kept his eyes focused straight ahead, away from the frosty windows of houses. Every sense and nerve felt exposed to the point that the clouds became resonant, ashen in feeling, hanging like the underbelly of some great dragon about to crash down on his head. His flight finally came to rest against a pole attached to a dysfunctional streetlamp near the center of town, and he stood against that pole puffing out breaths in short bursts.
“What happened back in that room?” he said to the pole, still trying to get his breath. From the moment Autumn put her head on his shoulder everything had gone haywire, like an orchestra coming unhinged, each instrument splitting off to play its own melody, tempo, and style. He tried to plumb the actions of Lyle Glasser, but what poked through all the roiling emotions at the moment was his thought about Autumn. What could he possibly have been thinking about a student? And one who was forty years his junior? Where was the professionalism to have a thought like that in a room full of students? What did it mean to have that thought in a room where Julia and he had shared some of the most defining moments of both their lives? To be standing in the same room wondering about the shape of a woman’s breasts?
Gravesend kept repeating those thoughts, trying to whip up a froth of indignation and self-recrimination, tamping the snowy grass with his feet, but thinking of the touch of Autumn against his shoulder was no less exciting in memory than in the happening. He closed his eyes, leaning back against the pole, seeing Autumn beside him, and forcing himself to think of something else: that horrid, frightful ride that Lyle Glasser conducted. Gunn’s mesmerizing song. All of it blended together and drained away, leaving only himself and his emotions for Autumn Gilhain. How could this happen? How could he who had been so careful to hold school, art, and life apart for so many years ever allow it all to come undone so quickly? How did he not notice any of the danger signs? At least he knew how to answer that question. He did notice them. Every single one of them. He just ignored each signal, driving straight through every red light going off in his head.
He heard a car approaching, but the sound of it braking to a stop didn’t register until he heard a voice call, “Professor Gravesend? Professor?”
Gravesend opened his eyes. Five pairs of student eyes, at least three pairs belonging to students from his graduate level Conducting Seminar, peered at him from the inside of the car that had pulled up to the curb.
“Is something wrong, Professor?” Grace Amin said from the front passenger seat. “Do you need a ride to somewhere?”
“No. No, thank you. I’m out for a stroll and … ah … only stopped for a moment before starting back.”
“Quite sure. Thank you again.”
“Okay. Merry Christmas!”
“And to all of you.”
Amin rolled up the window and the car went on. After a minute, Gravesend turned around and started trudging his way back toward home, his heart as heavy as his legs. If given the choice, he would prefer finding the door to his house swinging wide and the whole place ransacked to Autumn waiting in the Great Room for him alone.
He found the front door firmly closed. One unknown vehicle remained in the driveway, but because he had not seen which vehicle each person brought, he had no way of knowing who was inside. Well, he couldn’t stay outside all night, although freezing to death felt like a viable option. He entered the house and fell back against the door, listening.
Autumn’s voice came through the open doorway to the Great Room.
“Quinn? Is that you?”
“We’re in here.”
“We’re,” he thought. “Plural. Thank God!” Gravesend took off his jacket and headed for the round door.
Autumn sat on the couch, shaded in the light of the dying fire. Glasser lay in a fetal position perpendicular to her, his head in her lap, uttering soft, low moans and bleats at random intervals. Otherwise, he appeared ready for burial.
“What happened?” Gravesend asked. “I was expecting—”
Autumn stopped him by putting a finger to her lips and motioned for him to sit in the tight space between her and the arm of the couch. Gravesend sat with as much grace as he could, aware of her thigh, hip, and arm pressed against him, of the mixed scent of burning wood and jasmine.
“You look like death,” she hissed. “Where the hell have you been?”
“I had to … I needed some air, so I went for a walk.”
“Well I wish you’d have taken me with you!” She jerked her head toward Glasser. “What a mess.”
She lay the side of her head and cheek against the point of his shoulder. Somewhere in the chaos her knit cap had gone missing. Her hair tickling his neck sent chills through him.
“Lyle snapped,” she whispered. “Did you hear the song he played after Gaston finished?”
Oh, the wave of relief in that question. If she had to ask, Gravesend figured, then she hadn’t intuited any of his thoughts, which was his greatest fear. It wasn’t like Autumn to miss even a trace of a sexual scent, but the night hadn’t been a normal one. If Autumn had been distracted enough not to sense his feelings, then she couldn’t have been paying enough attention to track his movements. In other words, she realized he was gone but not that he had fled. For the first time in the last couple of hours, Gravesend felt his senses begin to uncoil. “I was here for the song. The intensity drove me out of the house and into my walk.”
“Well, when he was done, he began pounding the keyboard with his fists. Sorry, but he did some damage. Patrick and the guy with the bongos had to pull him away from it. Lyle kept screaming and flailing, but they finally managed to wrestle him to the floor and hold him. Then he really started freaking out—”
Gravesend held up his hand and pointed. Glasser had rolled his head and said something unintelligible. He still looked like he was in another world, but Gravesend didn’t want to risk a repeat performance if he should overhear Autumn detailing how and why he burst his seams. Gravesend got up and found a blanket and a cushion. He smoothly swapped out Autumn’s lap for the pillow and covered Glasser with the blanket. Motioning for Autumn to follow, he led her out of the room and into the kitchen, closing the door softly behind them.
“Would you like some tea?” Gravesend asked.
“Yeah, with a good shot of whiskey and some honey. So, Lyle’s on the floor calling out how the world is full of liars and pigs and, well, ranting. Gaston took over for the bongo guy and tried to talk Lyle through it. Gaston is one of the two people Lyle looks up to in his life. In fact, Lyle’s the reason Gaston and I are here, but even Gaston couldn’t get through. Lyle kept trying to roll free and he kept yelling and swearing, which if you know Lyle, that isn’t him. No one had any idea what to do; I mean, how do you react to something like that? So Patrick and Gaston just held on and we were all milling around, trying to be cool.”
The kettle boiled, and Gravesend set it aside to steep. He took out two mugs and added some Crown Royal Reserve and honey to Autumn’s.
“Finally, Lyle calmed down and stayed on the floor sniveling. That’s when the party broke up, and your students began to drift out until only Lyle, Chet, Gaston and I were left. We sent Patrick with the others; he has a plane to catch.
“Gaston was really shaken; I’ve never seen him like that before. Chet kept trying to get Gaston out of here, but before he would leave, I had to promise that I would sit with Lyle and you and that I would take care of him when you got back. Once Chet and Gaston left, I got down on the floor and tried to talk to Lyle. It took me about half an hour before I could get him off the floor and onto the couch. That’s when it all came out.”
“What came out?” Gravesend said, pouring the tea and bringing the cups over to the table.
“What’s been going on with him. Why he’s been so out of it lately.” She took a sip of the spiked tea and her face relaxed. “Thanks for this.”
“So, what’s behind Lyle’s behavior?”
“Okay. I said Gaston was one of the two people in Lyle’s life that he looked up to. The other is his step-father. Lyle’s real father ditched his mother before Lyle was even born. His mother remarried when Lyle was about six to a guy named Kroft, who at that time was just beginning his first term in the Pennsylvania House. He was a good father, despite the fact that he was gone so much. The guy went from the PA House to the U.S. Senate and got really powerful there. And of course you know about what he’s doing now.”
“No,” Gravesend said. “I don’t. I follow Canadian politics more than the American version.”
“God, I don’t follow any of it, and even I know Senator Mitchell Kroft.”
Gravesend thought for a moment. “Wait. Yes, I do recognize the name. Are you telling me that Lyle’s step-father is one of the fellows running for President?”
“Yep. The primary elections begin in January or February, and Lyle’s told me that people think Kroft has a good shot because he’s a moderate Republican who a lot of Republicans and Democrats like. The problem is that the more conservative Republicans don’t like him. They want their guy in. Then there’s the second thing.”
Gravesend made a face. “That won’t be a good vote-getter, not the way homosexuals are thought of in the U.S.”
“Right. Lyle came out to his parents when he was sixteen, shortly after I met him. His father’s cool with it, but Lyle’s always been super careful not to let anyone outside of his family know, except Gaston. I didn’t know until we came here. One of the reasons Lyle chose NAUFA was because it was close to Canada, and he thought being so close to Canada, eventually, he might be able to pursue a relationship there where the scrutiny would be less. Of course, his dad hadn’t decided to run for the presidency at that time. Even now, he’s only one of what, four or five Republican candidates? The press has left Lyle somewhat alone right now, but he knows that if Kroft starts to win, that’ll all change. He wasn’t even looking for a relationship, not until the election gets sorted out. But then, he met a guy named Jacques-Yves, and even though it’s probably the worst thing in the world right now, Lyle fell for the guy – hard.”
Thoughts of Autumn earlier in the Great Room started to rise up in Gravesend’s mind, but he pushed them down. “I know a bit about having ill-timed romantic feelings. What did you mean by the press has left Mr. Glasser ‘somewhat alone?’”
“A couple of times in October, Lyle felt like he was being followed. Also, he thought someone had gotten into his apartment and looked around; he doesn’t always think to lock it. But nothing was taken, so he just said probably some reporters were snooping. I was pissed, and wanted to call the cops, but he wouldn’t. He didn’t want to do anything to draw attention to himself and, through him, to his dad. Then came the trip to Montreal in November.”
“I assume that’s where the problems started,” Gravesend said.
“Yeah, big-time. Jacques-Yves met Lyle in the park and told him that their relationship was a set-up. He was paid $50,000 to get it on with Lyle and provide evidence that Lyle was gay. He said that he never loved Lyle and that the whole thing was about politics and money.”
“No wonder he went off his head!”
“It’s been building for a long time, and worse than any of us knew. Not only did he fall in love and get dumped, but now he’s worried that he just blew his dad’s presidential chances. What’s really bad, though, is that he told me he’s starting to think he’ll never be able to find someone to love, at least not while his father’s in politics. He’s afraid people will be watching now, and he’ll doubt the motives of any potential lovers. The way he was bawling and saying unintelligible things between what was coherent had me worried he would start going crazy again, and I couldn’t stop him on my own. I didn’t think you were ever coming back.”
Gravesend finished his tea. “We better look in on him and decide what to do.”
They went back into the room where Glasser was still moaning incoherently. What was to be done with him? And with Autumn? He could offer to drive them somewhere and help Autumn get Glasser where he needed to be. Looking down at the young man, Gravesend also wondered if he shouldn’t call an ambulance, although that seemed extreme and would call unwanted attention to Glasser. The one solution Gravesend didn’t want to think about was having them both stay here, but what if Autumn suggested it? Didn’t she say something to that effect when she was touring the house? “This’ll be my bedroom if I’m ever too drunk to leave?” Gravesend didn’t even want to think of that, of him and her in this house on this night with Lyle Glasser lying in state in some other room. Gravesend went over to Glasser and brought his hand down firmly on Glasser’s shoulder, giving him a rough shake. “Mr. Glasser! Wake up! Mr. Glasser, Lyle, it’s Professor Gravesend. Listen to me!”
The moaning and sniveling subsided, and Lyle raised his head a few inches off the cushion, but his eyes remained closed. A thin strand of slobber spun down from his lip like a spider’s thread, coming to rest in a gooey spot on the pillow’s fabric. He put his head back down.
“My God,” said Gravesend, “he’s catatonic. Maybe I’d should call an ambulance.”
“And what? Have it reported that Mitchell Kroft’s son was hospitalized after a huge party at the home of the legendary composer Quinn Gravesend? If you don’t want me invading your privacy, you’ll certainly love having reporters storming this place. No, we’re not doing that to Lyle. Look for his car keys. They should be near his coat, maybe in the hallway.”
Gravesend left the room and returned with a leather jacket in his hand. “Keys are in the pocket.”
“Great. Help me get him up and out to his car. I’ll drive him home.”
“And you? How will you get home?”
“I’ll crash at his place. I don’t think he should be alone tonight, and if he gets worse, I can call an ambulance from there like he just got sick.” She pushed Lyle into a sitting position, and his head lolled. Gravesend took a napkin from the food table and wiped the drool and sweat from Glasser’s face. While Autumn went out to start the car, Gravesend managed to wrap the jacket around the young man’s shoulders and pull him to his feet. Then he half-dragged, half-led Glasser out of the house and deposited him in the front passenger seat.
“Do you want me to follow and help you get him into his apartment?” Gravesend asked.
“No. Thanks. I can handle him as long as he’s not fighting me. And I wouldn’t put it past Gaston to be camped out at Lyle’s place anyway.”
Gravesend watched the car disappear down the drive before re-entering the Great Room and taking a seat in one of the leather chairs before the fireplace. His relief was palpable. Most of the wood behind the grate had burned and the embers glowed as the light faded. Instead of stoking the blaze, he sat, watching it burn lower and darker. In two days, he was expected in Jamaica to spend Christmas with Papaté. He tried to focus on that, on how different Christmas would be in a tropical climate. He really didn’t care. His mind replayed party scenes until the fire finally dimmed from his view.
He started awake with a sharp pain shooting through his back and neck when he moved in the chair. The fire was cold. He eased himself up out of the chair and stumbled back toward the kitchen. The hands of the grandfather clock stood at 4:14 a.m. He was going to be a mess when he got up later in the morning, and he still had packing to do and errands to run. He moved through the kitchen wondering what woke him. He had been dreaming about some foreign place where the people all rang bells, but the bells reminded him of his own doorbell. He stopped just as he was about to start up the stairs. Turning around, he hobbled back out to the entrance way and opened the door. No one was there, but a compact disc clattered as it fell at his feet. He picked it up and read the label: The Book of Secrets by Loreena McKennitt. Gravesend opened the attached card:
Here’s something that is you. I know that you aren’t a big fan of popular music, but this is different, complex, and just a little mysterious. My copy reminds me that there is a person who can surprise me and who I can surprise. That’s you. Merry Christmas.
Autumn Gilhain hopes that being a founding member of a student artistic society will give her music and her life direction since both are floundering. At the same time, Quinn Gravesend, the greatest composer of the 20th century, suspects his career and creativity are drawing to a close. Over the course of nine months, Autumn and her fellow artists collide with Gravesend, and the seven of them grapple with love and loss, insecurities and genius, dreams and fears. Only one thing is certain: None of them will emerge the same as they were at the start.