In the Thick of Life
He never forgot the first time they met. . . . In those distant moments of the mid-twentieth century she laughed. Like tomorrow never had to come. Like the universe existed for the sake of happiness here on earth. Like there was some all-encompassing presence, a fuzz-ball up in the clouds that was making sure life would be great for everybody. Her laugh turned dark when tomorrow actually got to them. It swooped up and out of her as if it came from another place, lower down. And it was as if it had to travel further, as if she had to expend more effort to get it out. It didn’t split the air very often either. Neither did his.
They didn’t have a choice. Confronting that tomorrow they drifted together down a stream of events. He took a headlong plunge off the edge, into the abyss. And all at once the humor twisted itself in impossible knots around their world. If anything was funny at that point it wasn’t in any straightforward way.
The part that really upsets him about what happened, that final event, was his responsibility in it. It was his fault. Wholly. That’s what he knows. He did it. And he can never get it out of his head. Even today.
Looking back over the hills, plateaus, and valleys of his past, that year stands out for him like a piece of radioactive driftwood on an abandoned beach. It tortures his sleep, intrudes on vast chunks of his waking life, ruins his concentration, haunts all of his thoughts. One way or another that time is always with him. And he’s not sure that he should forgive himself for it. If he could it might help him think of something else. But no. It might be twisted of him. . . . He doesn’t even want to forget. Especially one month that winter. That month made him what he is today. Most of the worst experiences of his life, and some of the best, unraveled in three short, frantic weeks. Sometimes he stops and wonders about the good things and how they came out of the bad. Then again, sometimes he wonders about the other, supposedly good things and how they came out so badly. He guesses he knows how the bad things came to be. But thinking of those really good things he still doesn’t understand how they ended up tied in with everything else. It will be difficult to separate them out for us. But he promises to try.
Where to start?
The Christmas decorations were freshly repacked, back in the garage. New Year’s Eve had come and gone. They had frenetically rung in 1955 and had spent plenty of time recovering from the aftershocks. There was a remarkable year ahead in many ways.
Change was in the air. Allen Ginsberg was imagining one long Howl. John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen were creating staggering essays in sound. Jackson Pollock was self-destructing into oblivion, his life a tragedy, but his exceptional paintings of a few years before were creating an uproar throughout the land. Then there were people like Willem de Kooning and Ad Reinhardt, covering canvases in ways that would stop your breath, showing work that was turning New York City into the art capital of the world.
On the local front happy townsfolk purchased Chevy Bel Airs In record numbers that year. Its aerodynamic styling seemed so damned advanced at the time. And there were the two-toned colors, the ostentatious chrome detail work, the sleek jet plane hood ornament that pointed the car forward like it was going to take off. People loved that car. Unabashed modernity was at its height.
OK, so some other things that year weren’t so great. Ike Eisenhower was putting people to sleep. Quiz show personalities like Kitty Carlyle were polluting the airwaves with glib chatter. Not all of it was remarkable. It probably wasn’t a good time to do a lot of political thinking in public. And in small towns, well. . . . if you had stood on Ware Street one morning in January, you wouldn’t have thought anything remarkable was going to happen at all. . . ever. Everything would have seemed so. . . face it, so damned normal to you.
The previous night on that street had passed with nothing much happening to speak of, even to your mother. Just about the entire population of this town had slept deeply, snoring and wheezing through what dreams they managed to wrench free from the bottom of their weary souls. And while they slept some of the junk they owned had been pretty busy. What junk? Those machines, gadgets, appliances, and utilities that somebody or other had invented with the idea of supporting life.
As far as all that goes, you should imagine the sound of endless whirring and pulsating, a light clatter of machines ricocheting through the town all night, as if there was some game plan to keep things static, unchanged, pretty much the same as the evening before, and those sounds were there to reassure anyone who happened to wake up that everything was proceeding according to the plan, that all was well. A good thing too, you might think, since all this junk wasn’t cheap and was supposed to work.
Like for example there were those furnaces waging a promethean battle against the bitter winter night. Off and on, off and on, off and on. Just when you thought they had given up and tossed it all away for good they would blaze forth abruptly once again with an orange-red glow and a refusal to die. If you were a little bit crazy like our leading male character was back in those days and you sat motionless most of the night in your basement with the lights off, like he did once, and if you looked at the heater you would see how it cast a kind of shadow puppet play into the darkest corners.
And so the night passed as all of this suburban junk, as all of these mechanized objects played the part of substitute human beings while their weary masters wrapped themselves in dreams. Every pump, every generator, every circuit breaker, every gadget that clogged the properties, the backyards, garages, basements, and front yards on countless empty streets has followed its script faithfully. Mechanically. All night. All through the moonlit night.
And so now it’s time for something else. As if to bring that on, a milk truck goes by, filled with heavy glass milk bottles with the name of a dairy printed on them—Ideal Farms. And a cow is on each bottle too. A friendly little thing. The truck itself isn’t quite as charming at this hour. Its transmission whines and shudders to wake the dead as its tires disturb a patch of finely ground glass that is the only remaining sign of a neighborhood auto accident from last summer. Not much of one, in truth.
The streetlight overhead gives off a raw, pulsating purple glow onto that glass. If you were there that morning, if you looked closely enough, you could catch the reflective sparkle of light onto each tiny fragment. Our character says he was there. That’s how he knows. Whatever. The thing with our character is that sometimes I think he lies all the time. I don’t know. I’ll bet he was in bed asleep. Now he tells me he had seen that road sparkle on other mornings. OK.
Those pieces of glass almost seem like tinsel and glitter from some arcane celebration sponsored by Spydoflex or other creatures from the infernal depths. Party favors from hell. He thinks of it that way because to him there was something infernal about that town. He went through it there. Everything about it seems tainted as he looks back.
A frost covers the sidewalk. The concrete mixing truck came through Ware Street seven years ago. They put in a nice little sidewalk. Nothing great. Still. It was considered a pretty damned big deal out here in the sticks. So they put “1948” on one of the slabs. Why else was it? They put dates on the sewer caps too. Maybe the town fathers had posterity on their minds. Like some cheap version of the Roman Empire. Maybe they imagined the town far into the future, and this was a way to gain some immortality. Incoherently. As if those dates were there to communicate with a future, whatever it might become, even if in an impersonal way. Maybe not, though. Who cares?
Parts of the sidewalk are cracking. Patches of raw dirt take the place of missing pieces in slabs where the process has continued unhindered over time. The bare earth, frozen too solid to leave footprints, betrays nothing of the summer grass that shoots its way up each year. Now there is only a salt residue from the last snowplowing. Everything on planet earth seems cold, hard, and snowless. And there is nothing left over from last week’s thaw to remind us what has been and hint at what is to come.
The air is still as the milk truck fades away. A call splits the stillness.
A voice of someone wearing tights, a very musical voice calls her dog home.
Their dog, really.
Right. It is her voice. A voice like no other since. A voice he hears in sleep to wake up sweating, tangled in his bedsheets.
He stops his daily routine now and then and the voice comes to him. He thinks of conversations with that sweet voice. Conversations that took them out of their petty, everyday existences and made them both larger than life, made them feel smarter, more perceptive, made them feel more aware of themselves and their world than they thought possible. When he was with her he felt as if in his life before, in his twenty or so years of life without her he had been deeply asleep, in a coma, simulating a state of death. And then, all at once through the seemingly simple act of conversing with her he experienced a violent awakening. It was if he had lived for years as a small-town garbageman, a hopeless, emotionless schlep, picking up the discards, the junk of life, thrashing and trashing around with endless tin garbage cans, to suddenly discover that he could play all of Prokofiev’s piano sonatas perfectly, from memory, backwards or forwards at any tempo, even though he had never touched a piano before. There was something tangible in his life that he valued, for once. A deeply inspiring relationship with a true soul mate. And it made him value his existence more than he ever had. As much as he valued Prokofiev’s sonatas. More. And it made him stop hating himself. Stop hating himself and start creating things she would be proud of. That’s how it felt in 1955. Now that voice has been silenced. It will never speak again except in his mind. And that silence has lasted years, more than he would care to admit. Funny. But it doesn’t seem like so long ago when he thinks of her calling Harpo.
He can hear her like it was this morning. . . the voice in tights. Not many people wore tights in 1955. Dancers. Weirdoes. Those that did were considered somewhat peculiar, to small-towners particularly. Those that did were thought of as kooks and that was that.
“Haarr-po!” The voice again. Don’t you miss it? No, how could you, you didn’t know her. Well, she is over there, standing on the back porch. It’s 6:45 AM. The sun is almost rising. A glow. She is slim. Medium height. Black tights. Black turtleneck.
Hey did they wear turtlenecks in 1955? Maybe not. OK, then imagine a black sweater if you like. No, he thinks it would be better if she had on a black sweatshirt. Anyway they all were in her second-to-bottom dresser drawer. She wore them all back then, he says. Sometimes she would call him when she was drying herself after a bath and ask him to go get her a pair of panties, which were in the top drawer. Or socks, second-to-top. Thinking of this makes him very sad, even today. No matter. You decide what she is wearing.
Hey, anybody remember how back then kids got those flat, rubbery-plastic figures that they could dress with little cut-out clothes? Color Forms, he says they were called. Well, think of her as a bohemian Color Forms set and then imagine what cool clothes she would wear. . . . But I don’t know if that’s a particularly healthy exercise, I must interject. Wait! Not that there was anything imaginary about her, he says. She was very real, he assures us. She was so full of life. Not an object at all. OK. He was there back then. Fine. We believe him. He says he wants to help us imagine her like she were there in front of us now, looking off their back porch early that morning.
Maybe she has blond hair, maybe red, maybe black. It doesn’t matter. It didn’t to her. Imagine her hair the way you like it best. One thing: it should be long. It’s her voice that matters most to him, though. And what it was saying. That’s one aspect that really set her apart. He says he’ll describe it to us a little more, then we can decide for ourselves what color hair she had and if she was wearing a sweatshirt or not.
He thinks we’ll be able to tell him, then.
Her voice reminded him of the music that has moved him most in his life. Thinking back it reminds him of the lyric, too-bad-the-world’s-gone-awry side of Mahler, the ironic whimsy of Satie, the let’s-hear-God drama of Bruckner, the ineffable mystery of Scriabin, the endless melody of Schubert, the hypnotic insistence of Steve Reich. . . .And that voice seemed so full of love for him, so full of hope. Now it’s gone forever. It had a husky corner to it when she was speaking quietly, which was often. But maybe most of all it had a very improvisatory, almost jazz-like modulation quality. When she wanted to make a point, sometimes her voice rose in pitch gradually until she had reached a critical word, when she would emphasize the off-beat or unexpected syllable for gesture and emphasis. Like “That’s the way it is with some pee-pul,” or “It doesn’t make a difference.”
Anyway she stands on the back porch with a leash in her hands. It is not yet light enough to see very far across the back lawn and into the bushes where Harpo escapes when he manages to dash off. She can’t see any sign of him out there, so she taps the leash against her arm with a lithe, yet absent-minded rhythm. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap.
The porch light reflects yellow on the concrete underneath her feet. Yellow. That was before the “Soft White” bulbs. To the left is a coconut palm welcome mat. Not many come to be welcomed and the “welcome” message could plausibly be said to mean “wipe your feet” in a polite way. Nevertheless it remains there as a sign of her hope.
In the same way the aluminum patio furniture is a sign of her wish for happiness. Still outside on that winter morning, though in disarray, it is a sign of her longing for a life that would fit together properly, for pieces that would fall into place in a way that felt right. . . for enough time, and maybe the right space so that she could truly belong to something. A sign of her heart-felt, but only intermittent dreams of raising a family. . .of her search for good friends (there weren’t enough of them). . . of her fervent desire to be a member of a community of people with a world view not so utterly removed from hers. So there it is, somehow, all wrapped up in that rather sad welcome mat and the out-of-season patio chairs. She scans the backyard scene for a moment, exhaling a long breath of air gloomily, but without a touch of theatricality, without a thought to the lovely impression she would make on anyone watching. No one is.
So it’s morning in a small town. No sign of either Eisenhower or John Cage on this back porch. They don’t come around. Where is Harpo? What is the voice in tights thinking? If you ask her she’ll say “nothing” . . . quietly, tentatively, sadly, a little dreamily. That is when you know she is thinking of something after all. As it is she is thinking of the twirling baton she got for Christmas when she was six. What makes her think of it, she asks herself, when she hasn’t thought of it in twenty years? No answer. The mind is a screwy thing, she thinks, when for no reason at all that baton pops into your head out of nowhere, then disappears just as quickly. It feels like our existences are “peopled” with objects that we pass by in the course of life like signs on a highway. We mark our lives with this stuff like we would mark diaries with ink, so that we can experience what we naively call “reality,” the experience of having a life.
Right, hmm. Like that barbeque over there. You see that it is rusty and they never use it much. The fact that it is out here in the winter and not safely tucked away somewhere is an affront to its meaning, that it heightens and marks seasonal time (and yeah, you cook stuff on it), that it says “it is summer and life is good,” when it isn’t summer and life isn’t so good? She is thinking about where she would store it, or whether to get him to do it. . . . A funny person, she was that. . . . the way she could think something a little profound about and in the most mundane circumstances. There never was anyone else like her for him. He guesses there never will be.
OK, he lived in the house with her then. As her loving husband. Unlike at least some of the residents of this small town (which is known as Smith Mills), they had an enormous affection for each other that went far beyond their initial and continual sexual attraction. Every moment they spent together was a blessing to him, the way they inspired each other to recreate themselves anew every day. Even the daily routine was special because of their intense love for each other. Their food shopping was no different from their many visits to art galleries. God, did he love her. Who is he? Well, he was a high school art teacher back in 1955. It left him plenty of time for his painting, and that was about the only good thing about it. Never mind about that now.
Well, there she is in the flesh, just as she appeared in those days, his loving, lithe counterpart, staring out into the woods, looking very sleepy, standing tentatively on the porch. If you like, call her Vit (rhymes with “wheat,” short for Vitia). Vit, like life. The name fits her somehow. Still no Harpo.
Oh, right, she thinks. Breakfast. She had put some of those toaster cakes in the toaster they had. Everybody was eating them back then. Hard to say why. Toaster cakes were made of corn meal and something else (no one thought much about what), and they had a texture somewhere between sawdust and wallpaper paste, depending on how long you left him in the toaster. There was a third texture born out of another toaster setting, but you’ll find out about that in a minute.
1955 was a time when all of America decided to eat dessert—for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, even in dreams. These toaster cakes were just a part of it. Dessert had become the main course of life. Existence had become indigestible without a whole hell of a lot of it, along with pack after pack of cigarettes, an ocean of martini mix, killer globs of gum, garbage truckloads of cough crops, tanker cars of syrup. All a kind of lubricant to the easy life.
America was determined to manufacture and consume enough dessert to fill up the entire universe with its essence. They were determined to send it into space, put signs advertising it out there, clog the solar system with it, stop the rotation of the planets. . . . They were hell bent on the mission. They tried frantically to leave their mark in this way. They pictured Mars bombarded with coconut custard pies, Saturn’s rings dripping with baked Alaska, Pluto pulverized by pineapple upside-down cake. What a sight it would be! They knew it must be done. They knew they had to do it before the Russians started getting ahead of us.
The mission started on a very simple level. In humble kitchens across the land. In humble mouths and the mouths of their families. The plan was to purchase all the proper name brands (that was crucial), then inhale like crazed vacuum cleaners until it all went down their gullets. The object: poison yourself round-the-clock in an obsessive ritual that seemingly everybody subscribed to in the hope that this was the magic formula to make life truly easy.
But for Vit and him all the toaster cakes in the world didn’t seem to do any good. No help at all, really. What they could have used more of was that traditional main course in some cosmic sense.
Meanwhile Vit, the voice-in-tights, gives up on Harpo for the moment and, turning, opens the screen door leading to the kitchen. It is one of those wooden screen doors that always squeaks in a slightly different way every time you open it. No two squeaks are exactly alike.
When that pre-Socratic philosopher, what’s-his-name, said “you can’t step in the same stream twice,” he must have had our screen door in mind. Every time it varied. Our character will never forget it. He’ll also never forget the sound of that door shutting. There was no latch on it, only an eye hook if you wanted to lock it from the inside. When you let it spring back unhindered, the closing sound was a flat, kind of latchless closure. Smack. A woody snap with the hint of a rattle from the metal screen. It was nothing like the sound of aluminum doors. Those have a kind of a clunk to them. Wooden screen doors were somehow more symphonic, with that uncertainty of a variation on the squeak conjoined with the rich percussive regularity of the closing snap.
True to form, the door gives off one of its more pristine utterances. His love, Vit, enters and lets the door spring back with that percussive sound texture. And so the toaster cakes. . . . She looks blankly for a second onto the toaster.
Their toaster was a stylish fifties appliance that shared a peculiar look, a feel, a resonance in common with much of the household objects of the time. It was very heavily chromed, for a start. Like most of the objects people filled their lives with in 1955, its chrome finish reflected the world around it. As a mirror image of sorts. And its bulbous, plated appearance made it look military. Like a kind of tank. Breakfast had become militarized, food now wore protective armor. We won World War Two, hurray! Now Johnny’s tank has been stationed in the kitchen, to keep America safe from stale bread. America wanted that tank to show them what they looked like, to reflect their lives with their very selves looking back, smiling, all of them in military formation with Ike at the head of the parade. But at the same time America also needed protection from what it ate, right?
In the fifties the enemy was supposed to have been inside of all of them (according to McCarthy, Freud, and Speedy Alka Seltzer). They had to take precautions!
Anyhow Vit was somewhat of a klutz when it came to those certain material details of life that are of little consequence, yet can make life a maddening hell if you've never managed to master them. Remember about that third way of making toaster cakes he hinted at earlier? Well, they both were practicing masters of the art. And this occasion is no exception. Sure enough, a steady stream of black smoke rises from both slots of the tank. Sir, the tank's on fire! Permission to eject cargo! This is not how it said life would be on the package! Not again!
Vit had never mastered the art of making toaster cakes. Too many things were on her mind to concentrate, blankly, like some idiot savant, on the mundane task of just waiting for the damn things to be done. Instead here she goes to call Harpo, then remembers (too late) that there is no way to fine tune the dark/1ight selector for toaster cakes. And so they pop up a jet black. Well, she could have set it for light to be safe.
But no, that wouldn't have been Vit at all. Like him, she was a klutz. One of the reasons he loved her, maybe. She was just too damned smart to be bothered to learn how to tie her own shoes. There were too many other things on her mind.
Smoke is in the kitchen. Clunk-clunk-clunk comes the sound of feet with socks on clambering down the stairs. In pops a head. It's him. He's up, wearing Leave-it-to-Beaver's-father's bathrobe (red plaid). He was so young then. He looks at her and smiles; she smiles back with a look that says "I burned the toaster cakes" and he's off to shave in the downstairs bathroom.
Vit walks to the toaster. Punches up the lever. Yes. They are burned. Damn, she thinks to herself. They taste pretty awful anyway. And these were the last two. There's nothing to eat in this kitchen. Her mood turns sour. Why do we have to eat, anyway? It's so damned boring sometimes.
As her gaze pans the kitchen, her mind goes back to another time. . . another kitchen. . . the family kitchen of her childhood. And that twirling baton again. That's right, I remember now, Vit thinks, forgetting about the search for breakfast for a moment. She absent mindedly gazes at the smoking toaster cakes.
I liked that baton so much at first, I kept it by my chair after Mom made me stop playing with it and sit down to lunch. I remember it balanced at a funny angle against the chair. Very precarious. Always falling over and running under the table like part of. . . like the axle of a car. The little rubber balls at each end were like its tires.
And then we were supposed to eat lunch. What do I remember about that? A paper plate with, ugh, a dried beef sandwich (which I refused to eat) carefully trimmed of its crust and cut neatly in half. Then there were potato chips. Pepsi with ice, poured into a little blue tumbler. I used to like to listen to the soda bubbles. Fizz.
Sounded great when you cupped your hand over the top and shook it a little. Then there was always a cloth napkin--blue, too. The laundry my mother did in those days. There was a ton. The lunch routine was my mother's way of loving me. Cutting off the crust. Preparing everything just so. Calling me to sit down with her. But I wanted no part of this eating ritual. I wanted to just run, run as fast as my legs would go, run out of that kitchen to the snow outside. Run just as fast back into the kitchen. Run into the living room and slip on the Newark Evening News spread out on the floor. Somebody's socks haphazardly thrown by the chair. . . run around them. . . run out the door again.
Zap. The thought is gone. Hey, wake up, Vit. She shakes herself a little. Try finding something else for breakfast.
There was nothing remarkable about their kitchen. But it was their kitchen and that made it something. It somehow was an extension of themselves. Their love. Their life. Their bodies pointed at it for hours daily, from all angles, taking it in, interacting with it, reading it like a book. Only afterwards does he realize how exceptional it was because, holy shit, this was their life and it was passing away daily. And now it's gone. He wishes he could go back right now and kiss her, hold her in his arms and tell her how much he loved her. Sometimes he doesn't think she believed him. She had her reasons.
As long as we're clunking around in the kitchen, what about that stupid chrome dinette set over there? It had four awkward legs pointed at just the right angle to trip him up. Vit stayed away from the sides and did better. Its top was roughly egg-shaped. It looked as if it was made of Formica, but it wasn't exactly. It had some kind of veneer that was glued to a fiber backing. Whenever you were in the kitchen you could focus a gaze on its simulated grey and black marble texture. Its presence was omnipotent, all encompassing. No wonder. The kitchen table was God. It was the fulcrum point for their eating life. And their eating life was the fulcrum point for their life. But that table had other parts of life wrapped up in it, too.
The edges had come unglued slightly so you could pinch the hell out of yourself if you started toying with it and got your fingers caught between the edge and the chrome ring that was supposed to retain it. (Both Vit and he had done it a few times.) And toy with it he did, as he used the kitchen table as a kind of philosopher's stone. He sat at it for long whiles, musing about their life, their future, their past, the world, stuff like that. The chrome retainer kept his interest as he sat because it was ribbed and he could run his thumbnail down it and make various zzz-zzz noises as he felt the urge. Sometimes it would get to the point where he would bug Vit and she would ask him, in that sweet voice of hers, if he would mind putting a cork in it.
The underside of the table was made of a kind of brown fiberboard. It had a woven look to it. But the funny thing about the bottom was that labels would live virtually forever underneath there and they'd more or less only notice them when they moved and had to take the table apart. Then they'd find a Beacon Van Lines label that they'd forgotten about--or whoever moved them last--and a label from where they bought the thing, Dinette City, Garfield, N. J. Atlas-8-3800.
Come to think of it the last time he saw the underside of the kitchen table was a few weeks before, when he happened to be on his hands and knees looking for a tack that fell on the linoleum underneath as he was about to hang up their 1955 calendar. They got their calendar free from the local Gulf station. Each spread had the orange Gulf ball emblazoned on it. The ball was pretty plain in those days. Just a starkly simple disk with a sanserif GULF centered in it. Every month featured a color shot of another Bermuda-shorted family, usually in a station wagon, driving the living shit out of their car. They were all headed for some remote destination, like Alaska or Singapore, anyplace just so long as they used up twenty truckloads of Gulf gasoline. The father was always the one shown at the wheel, probably because it would have been a capital heresy for them to have pictured the mother driving. Any month you looked at there was yet another family on a motoring trip, driving past mountains, driving past oceans, past forests, driving without stopping, driving, driving, driving.
It sort of reminded him how they didn't fit in. They didn't go "motoring" much. And Vit was a better driver than he was. And they didn't have any kids. And they never wore Bermuda shorts. And Vit more or less ignored the calendar anyway, preferring to reckon time in her own way. Space she had a sophisticated grasp of, but time. . . . It's not that she was less successful with it, so much as she had a unique stance about it. It always seemed she was doing battle with conventional ways of time reckoning. And sometimes things fell victim to her approach, like the toaster cakes, designed around a linear clock sense.
In the midst of her meditation on breakfast she drops a spoon underneath the very same table he was telling you about a minute ago. She crawls underneath to retrieve it. Once down there, Vit chances to look up at the underside of the table and enters a parallel world. A world conducive to her unique feel for time.
Look, she thinks to herself. Cobwebs and a Cheerio stuck to the chrome. There's that odd latch that he tied shut with metal wire last year to keep it from opening in the middle of dinner, to keep it from swallowing plates of franks and beans, meatloaf, knives and forks, plates of Hungarian Ghoul-osh or Italian Spaghetti. If I undid the latch now I could take out the extension panel and make it perfect for two. But if I did that, somehow I would be admitting that no one else ever eats at this table. No. Anyway if I did remove the extension, the table would be so small, there would only be room for a couple of cups of coffee. Coffee! Maybe I would wake up if had coffee. Vit reckoned time less from clocks and calendars as from the objects of her life. Like the underside of the kitchen table.
"Vit?"--from the bathroom, shaving--"Could you put on some music?" That's him. Always demanding something.
“Depends on what you're in the mood to hear." That's her. Always polite, albeit with that irony.
--"Oh, anything you choose is all right with me. And could you put on some water for coffee?" There, again.
--"I was just doing it. I'm really so sleepy, there's no way I can make it without coffee this morning." They worshipped coffee.
Vit steps out of the kitchen with a light tread. She looks thoughtful, filled with intention and purpose. She knows just what to choose. That's because she is extremely sensitive to the general mood, and she could translate that into a perfect choice of music. Entering the living room, her footsteps become muffled as she walks across the green rug. Neither of them liked that rug, really. Her parents gave it to them as a wedding gift. An odd choice, they thought, but they did need it, so. It was sort of sculpted in spots with elongated, scallop-shell-like ornaments. The rug was less dense in these parts, so that when Vit walked across it her steps were alternately more or less muffled depending on whether she was crossing scallops or not.
The sun has just begun to stream through the picture window behind their overstuffed couch. It was going to be a nice day. Bitter cold. But with a promise of spring to come in those first few streams of sunlight filtered through the gauze curtains. Spring. And a promise to Vit to be there forever. Funny how things turn out.
On the wall adjoining is their hifi. An overblown monument to permanence befitting its stature in their lives. So what if it soon will be an outmoded piece of junk with the advent of stereo. They could hardly have known that then. And it would not have made any difference. Sometimes the future is like that. It's better not to know what it will be.
Anyway, their hifi is made of a kind of pine, finished in the blond Scandinavian style that is quite sheik in 1955. It squats on four stumpy legs and rises with awkward confidence to about four feet, anti-climactically culminating in a thin, unprepossessing lid. A far-too-small speaker faces squarely frontwards. It is designed to look like a technical miracle. Somehow it falls short.
Open the lid and voila! You have the record player apparatus. There's a ten-ton tone arm that eats records alive. It's joined by a turntable platter that wears a kind of crew cut made from an unidentified fur-like substance.
This is luxury! It is supposed to be able to slam twelve records down onto that crew cut . . . one by one for hours on end so that they can sit prone on the couch, not moving at all, maybe not even alive. The "automatic changer," as it is proudly called by its manufacturer, has long since ceased to work. So one-at-a-time is the way they play them. It is good exercise, anyway, getting up off the couch every twenty minutes or so.
That's their living room. In old rural Ireland the living room was the place of the ancestors, a place for portraits, old family relics, a place where spirits would lurk. You won't find any of that in their living room on Ware Street. Not much. In spite of his Irish ancestry. Instead, you might think of it as their coat of fur. What? Why? With all that stuffed furniture, the rug, the furry turntable platter, that altar upon which they worship the god of music . . . maybe because of that and the muffling effect of it all, or maybe because, somewhere in their guts Vit and he are wild animals longing for their lost coats, making beatnik style animal calls with their music--mating calls, territorial calls, that kind of thing. Maybe that's why.
Vit's muffled footsteps cease. There is a long pause. What is she doing? What was he thinking she was doing back then? Being a card carrying member of the male gender in 1955, he had this notion that she tended to be overwhelmed with the hifi. He thought that she felt a trifle ill-at-ease with part of what he pictured as the male domain. He wasn't exactly alone in that. Back then there was some kind of cultural opposition. It's gone today, as far as he can tell. In the circles he travels, anyway. Regardless, it was mostly unconscious for ordinary people, himself included in those days. Like you have on one side the outside world of progress, technology, work, newness, the male component--as opposed to the inside world of continuity, values, home, tradition, the female component. And as the hifi, for him at least, was a sign of technology and progress (people really made a big deal about long playing, high fidelity records), so it was a male object, maybe. In his own silly way he imagined, back then, that she approached the hifi with caution, as if it were somehow dangerous. He thought that she was fascinated with that danger. Well she was quite fascinated with danger anyway. Sort of like a woman trying on boxer shorts just to see how it would feel. In retrospect, he thinks he was pretty dumb. Vit was just too ahead of things to be caught up in a hifi fetish. She was too hip, too aware to be vaguely uneasy about a male-oriented gadget. And she was much too concerned with the music itself to worry about its means of transmission. Still, that's what he thought then. It was a way of exerting his maleness in those days. Chuckling over how she would make the tone arm skip across the record. Really rather inane of him, he thinks now. He belonged to his times in 1955. At least every once and a while.
At any rate, Vit was contemplating what mood she was in, and what music would fit it. That is why there was a long pause. Now at last she puts on a record. As he shaves he hears the scratchy sound of lead-in grooves. What is she playing?
It's Thelonious Monk. Hey, Vit makes a good choice, as she always does. The song is called Nutty. Monk is on piano, Percy Heath coaxes the bass, the irrepressible Art Blakey is on drums. It was Monk's latest and best. They had gotten it for themselves as a Christmas present and it seemed to find itself on their record player more and more.
Thelonious Monk sounded like some abstracted, bluesy version of an out-of-kilter cocktail piano playing zombie. Most people back then, if they thought of him at all, dismissed him as a maniac, a pianist with ten thumbs, a poser. And he reacted by playing that role to the hilt. "Ok, you want bad piano from a maniac?" he seemed to say. "I'll give it to you in spades!" This was before they put his picture on the cover of Time, before he was somewhat domesticated and legitimized. In 1955, especially in Smith Mills, listening to Monk was an act of defiance.
A small town can't contain this sound. It is fit to burst out upon everyone. All the geeks out there. Turn it up.
Vit is about to call him and you don’t know his name. Excuse us for not mentioning it. What can he call himself? He'll admit the truth. His name is Calvin. Vit affectionately calls him Calie.
--"Calie [pause], when you listen to Monk, what do you dream of?"
--"I'm not sure. Why?" His voice has a little echo from the bathroom tiles.
--"Because, I don't know, I was just thinking . . . that he sounds like someone who's cold and wants to come in and warm himself by the fire. "
That’s the voice. So Vit-esque. He wanted to consume her very being right then and there. Or jump down her throat in some odd sort of total communion. It wasn't possible. He had to content himself with a response.
Hmm, actually he never thought that at all about it. Monk was sort of tough. He sounded like a machine with some kind of attitude problem, like an out-of-control lawn mower that had had enough of the grass and decides to go after all the trees in the yard. He sounded like anything but some puppy at the door. But, Calvin thinks about it for a minute as he listens. She was right, there was something sad in it too, some need in all that bizarre, out-of-whack periodicity. And a whole lot of pain. He guesses it was male-like to think of Monk that other way. Vit was more sensitive to these things.
--"You know, I think you may have something there. But he sounds pretty bugged too, don't you think? He sounds like he resents the hell out of being cold, doesn't he?"--with the bathroom echo again.
--"At first I thought his music was kind of awful, but now I hear a lot in it. It's that way he has of slamming on the piano like a kid who is sick of practicing. At first you think he just doesn't know how to play. Then you realize that that is his way of going at it. That's his style, right? I know now that Monk is being deliberate, that he tries to sound unschooled, that he is huge, ungainly, rough-hewn, but that it all is somehow ironic, that it all expresses, underneath it all, the sensibility of a cold, sad little puppy? What do you think, Calie? Am I right or what? Don't you hear it?"
--"Yes, I do, I think. There is another level. . . . You're right about that. And I guess it comes out even more in Ruby My Dear or, what's the name of it? Round Midnight. This tune is more up-tempo. But yeah, I hear it even in this one, now
that you point it out."
--"I wonder why he doesn't play with Miles much [she meant Miles Davis, another favorite of Vit's]. It seems like he would be the perfect foil for him. It would be an absolute bitch of a record. Miles would bring out that pain even more. Monk would positively sting his piano to death. Lethal."
--"For certain! I read somewhere. . . I think in Downbeat . . . that they are supposed to be recording together . . . or have already. Wouldn't that be something, Vit?"
--"No kidding! Hey, we should try to catch him in the city next time he's there, ok?"
--"Yeah, let's do that."
She's leaving the living room. Now he sees her reflection in the bathroom mirror as he tries to negotiate shaving around his Adam's apple. She takes some of the shaving cream left on his chin and playfully puts it in his hair. He yells. Then, as he's toweling it off, she says, wide-eyed, with an almost child-like bemusement--
--"They say he wears a diff-rent hat every time he plays. . . "
This is fatal to his concentration on morning rituals of hygiene and personal adornment. That's enough. He has to kiss her, the way she is goofing with him. He grabs her and gives her a big one, shaving cream on his head and all. She tastes a little salty. . . . It's probably the Ipana toothpaste she uses. But he loves the flavor of her, as he always does. It's all hers. He's all hers.