Friday, November 22, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 22

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

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It was gray and overcast this morning, leaden, dismal, another novembrous day, the kind a colleague of mine said he loved so much because it was a great time to curl up in a comfortable chair and read a book. At the time, still heading out to work every weekday to teach my classes and fertilize young minds with the long-accrued manure of the ages, I thought this was silly and on these more recent days when I'd rather be composing, it still seemed silly (I don't know why I remember him saying this, even the tone of wonder in which he said it). But today was, indeed, such a day and I had nowhere to go, nothing to do and felt less and less like sitting down at my desk to communicate with the muses who clearly were not interested in returning the call.

There were days when I faced the morning, wondering what will happen today? Of course, we never know, do we? But most often nothing, really, happens, nothing of significance: another day, and we march closer to the weekend, the end of the month, the next season, eventually a new year and (soon enough) another year after that. We mark anniversaries of momentous events in our lives, in history, we remember other events in relation to these specially chosen events ("the year after my mother died," "the month before my heart attack") but some of these, regardless of how we construct our memories around them, are times we approach with dread.

A day begins innocently enough, routine – breakfast, preparing for an important meeting after lunch, maybe thinking about the weekend's plans, going out for dinner with friends (or a "date night," perhaps) – and then something happens, unexpectedly: that is what history seems to be, from my experience, documenting the unexpected. If it were routine, would it be so historic? And yet much of what we recall about those events, we remember not from experiencing them – we read about them, watch them unfold on television, go to the movies to see it turned into entertainment and forget that, no, there must be a certain amount of guessing going on here, on the verge of fiction, don't you think? It might not have (could not have) happened that way.

The imperfections of memory and the inadequacies of documentation affect how the future will regard the past. I combine the best of certain events spread over a span of childhood's years to create a dissonance between fact and recollection. We know more about King Richard II from Shakespeare's play with its politically motivated gloss on the sad stories of the death of kings than we do of anything with only historical proof.

Fifty years ago, when I was almost fifteen – or was it only fifteen years ago when I was almost fifty? – I woke up on this date, dreading the algebra test in my last period class, going over formulas that I knew well enough the week before but now, pressurizing them into an urgency my grade depended on, dreading, as usual, that the gym class right before will knock everything I remember out of me.

There was an activity period sometime after lunch, mine with the staff that prepared the school's little magazine. While my mind was afraid I couldn't tell the difference between my hypotenuse and an inverse parabola, I was busy editing a short story submitted by someone who frequently bullied me in gym class (it was an awful story but I can't remember why).

Our faculty adviser, a tall, reedy little man who wore three-piece suits even in summer, was droning on about something at the table next to mine, perhaps advocating the virtues of the Oxford comma. I remember it was difficult to concentrate.

I also remember how, in my music class, we'd heard such beautiful music written by an English composer who was born on this date which was also the feast day of the patron saint of music. "How appropriate," I thought.

It had recently been the 100th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and instead of writing an article about that event, assigned to someone else (she always got the best assignments), here I was, editing this lame story about the heroics of football players.

Life, of course, is never fair and how horrible I felt mine was, in love with a girl who didn't know I existed (that same old song), getting ready to face a test in my worst possible subject after no doubt being publicly humiliated (again) in gym class.

Then the P.A. System sputtered into existence and the principal's voice, racked with sobs – what made this happen? – announced that the President had been shot and died only moments ago.

For we cannot escape history, even if we learn nothing from it.

One of the cats had knocked something off the kitchen counter and I hurried to investigate: nothing broken, no one hurt, no damage done but I noticed the rain had started, making everything already dreary even drearier. I looked out the window over the sink and saw the yard drained of color, shabbily gray and brown, lusterless: I will spend the day by the fireplace with a mug of hot tea (cocoa is for the evening time, I still think) and perhaps listen to something by Benjamin Britten – it's his 100th Birthday today.

He had become my favorite composer when I was a boy and the first composer – he and Copland – I sought to emulate when I began composing my own music. I wasn't sure what I should listen to – since his birthday was also St. Cecilia's Day, perhaps his choral hymn in her honor, setting words of his friend Auden – and then probably one of the operas I've always loved. What should it be, Midsummer Night's Dream?

In the grayness of the day, tea and a fire, as much as I hated cleaning up after the fire, sounded more and more enticing. In short time, my upstairs study became the warm and cozy room I always wished it could be, if not heated by the fires of my creativity. It felt right for a day intended to be spent fighting the damp drizzly November in my soul (if only it would help me compose).

Settling into my chair, I caught the slightest glimpse of something large and ghostly whisking past my window and as I looked out across the balcony realized a large almost pure-white snowy owl had landed on the balcony railing, looking out to survey the clearing of my yard below.

He no doubt sought a dry roost to escape the heavy mist but I hoped the cats would not chase him away with their excitement at seeing something they could only dream of catching.

I sat contentedly still beside the window – the cats fortunately oblivious – and watched the owl for nearly a half hour, immobile except for the head occasionally turning only the slightest to take in his surroundings.

Then the doorbell rang and Sybil stormed in past me, the bitterest chill of deep winter in her wake.

"The bastard lives with his mother – she's an invalid, has dementia or something," she screamed, pushing her way deeper into what had been the tranquility of my home.

"Hello, how are you?” I said from the still-open doorway. “Why don't you come in?"

It was typical of her not to be concerned about that, of wondering how I was. I felt like telling her "I almost had a heart attack the other day," just to see if it would slow her down a bit.

Her newest boyfriend, barely two weeks after she'd been dumped by the last one, has already come up short on her rather short list of expectations.

"He's a care-giver and says he can't spend that much time away from the house. I merely suggested having a nice quiet dinner out, maybe take in a movie, but he can't, he says, because his mum's having a bad day!"

"Considering the weather and the time of year, I'm not surprised," I said (thinking "not to mention if she'd had the chance to meet her son's latest paramour").

"Come," I said, tugging at her arm, saying there was something I wanted to show her upstairs. She hesitated a bit, apparently assuming I was suggesting taking her to bed and she hadn't even gotten her coat off yet. But when I led her into my study where she hardly ever went, I pointed out the window. Too bad: the owl had already gone. Perhaps the noise of her entrance had spooked him or he sensed the sudden rise in negativity and felt the need for safety.

When I explained the owl – "a snowy owl, like in Harry Potter?" – she was less than impressed but threw herself down on the daybed like a well-practiced tragic heroine. I was waiting for her to raise the back of her hand to her forehead before I'd offer her some tea. Instead, she ripped at her coat and threw it on the chair by the piano.

"Jesus, it's hot in here," she complained, and put her feet up on the end table, knocking aside a couple of scores I hurried to pick up.

It would be so tempting to tell her I do not need her here today. At least, on the phone, I could have pretended I wasn't home and let the answering machine take her call and absorb her brief anguish.

All I could think, as I looked out where the owl had been, "I'm in for it, now."

Turning back to look at her – no, actually, to look through her – I listened to Sybil's continuing torrent of self-pity and ignored her, hearing instead what sounded like "Ask not what your country can do for you" off somewhere in the middle distance. She offended me today on so many levels I was about to ask her to leave, something I would not have considered, as her friend, before. But she was obviously not thinking of me as her friend as if, for a moment, my self-centeredness might trump her own.

How this country's history had changed with the ringing of those few shots in Dallas so long ago, back when I was a child, I was too young to comprehend: for some reason, it hit me now as if those bullets had been meant for me, still finding their mark. Things changed that day, I didn't know: the hope that things would change died that day, too, if something like this could happen on Main Street.

The great decline into mistrust began then and what hadn't died that day was finally finished off on September 11th. A bright young politician had been replaced by the Old Guard and the status quo in Washington from which we've never escaped since – and the divisiveness he would warn us about in his ungiven speech that day was a lesson still unlearned.

Despite Sybil, I was back in my 8th grade classroom, working over a story about a football hero for the school magazine, remembering the shock, wondering what it was that made so many of my teachers cry – even the bus driver was weeping when we were sent home early – feeling the numbness of what had happened ("what was going on?" everyone was asking), unaware of what could happen. The shattered past turned sharply into the recapitulated future. I'd felt glad the math test had been canceled, but then felt guilty (besides, it would only be rescheduled).

"You don't really care, do you?" I heard her say, staring at me, tensed up with renewed emotion.

"No," I heard myself say, staring back at her, "not today."

A lot of people were wondering why this is news, all these old people talking about where they were the day Kennedy was shot, but it was no mystery to those of us who lived it, who heard the reports fifty years ago, who spent hours before the TV set over those next several days, saw the procession, heard those drums, watched the riderless horse as the President was laid to rest.

For us, it wasn't history: it was what happened to us. It was very real and for many of us, life-changing. It was when the world seemed to go crazy and I can't say, watching much of the news since then, that it hasn't.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

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