(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)
In the previous installment, as the dinner at the Benninghurst Artist's Colony was late getting started, we meet various composers like Arthur Lemm and Porgia Moore. Finally, Robertson Sullivan arrives but he doesn't have a chance to talk to Kerr yet.
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They told us it would be like any other routine elevator ride, just longer, all the way to the top of the Washington Monument, but once there, the view would be spectacular. My fifth-grade class had taken a bus trip to the nation’s capital, just like Rob Sullivan’s class that day. There were lots of us from both classes crammed into that elevator, plus a teacher named Miss Eliza Messerschmidt, a tall hatchet-faced old woman (they say she was probably over 40.) I only knew her by reputation, what my friends had said about her at recess or after school: they called her Sarge and (my luck) she was standing directly behind me. “It's so cramped in here,” I thought. “Why is this bony woman digging her claw-like hands into my shoulders?”
Once they got everybody squeezed in, the door cranked shut and eventually we took off, lurching upwards bit by bit. If we’d all held our breath, they could’ve fit in some more. It didn't feel like there would be any problem as we chugged slowly up through the cold stone needle. But since it was unnatural for kids to be confined and kept virtually immobile for even a few minutes, it didn’t take long till someone became uneasy and several started whimpering.
Then there was a snap, a jolt and the lights flickered out. We had definitely stopped climbing and soon I could feel Miss Messerschmidt's fingernails gradually digging deeper into my skin.
We were stuck and then, after only a few seconds, a low moan started deep inside someone behind me. We wondered what had happened, if were we stuck and how long it would be before we'd be rescued. Someone chanted under her breath “Please, God, I don't want to die.”
Miss Messerschmidt told us to remain still – still?! – but her voice was already quivering. The girls continued whimpering but the guys, for the most part, were taking it all in fun.
One said, “Let’s all jump up and down. That way, we'll get the elevator car unstuck and moving again.”
"Or crashing down 300 feet at an increasingly high rate of speed, you dork!" Rob shouted back at him. "Count on the class idiot to figure out exactly what we shouldn’t do."
The rest of us just stood there rolling our eyes, but then that was about all we could move. I imagined the elevator gaining speed rushing headlong – or feet-first – to ground level, smashing itself flat as a pancake. Judging from Robertson Sullivan's face, he must have already calculated that speed.
Then there was another lurch and suddenly we started to drop, faster this time. Kids had started screaming again. I was quickly losing circulation in my arms from Miss Messerschmidt's grip. She was shouting louder than the rest, “God, we're all gonna die!”
Then suddenly, we jerked to another halt.
Wedged together too tightly to fall down whenever we finally would hit the ground, everyone remained momentarily silent and motionless, listening to cloying melodies wafting over us from the still-functioning sound system. Softly undulating saxophones crooned bad arrangements of tunes anyone who watched the Ed Sullivan Show on television would know.
We each felt the same incredible fear rising from deep inside us, all in a matter of only seconds. Before we knew it, it had happened.
We all started to vomit.
And with that, the elevator, like magic, began to rise once more, slowly at first, then only gradually gaining speed. The lights continued flickering in and out, erratically without any noticeable pattern. Our eyes wide, we absorbed the sounds, the sights and, above all, the smells, standing there ankle-deep in barf. Our shoes and our clothes were thoroughly soaked in the remains of our late-lamented lunch – spaghetti and meatballs hastily devoured at the House of Representative's cafeteria – and also in our hair.
Feeling something dripping down the back of my neck, I hoped to God Miss Messerschmidt was playing that game where someone behind you pretended to crack an egg over your head then, fingers lightly touching your hair, slid them down over your head – but somehow, that didn’t sound like her…
Considering how often the average 5th grader needed to visit the restroom, Miss Messerschmidt probably realized early in her unfolding ordeal the implications of being trapped in an elevator full of them. Regardless of fear’s scientific impact on the control of a child’s bladder, we paused briefly to contemplate dying’s alternative. Undoubtedly a horrible death would appear preferable to riding the bus home as we found ourselves at the moment, and so we reconsidered jumping furiously up and down while yelling “Geronimo!”
The whole way up, the motors grinding and jolting, the muzac continued to play “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Then we’d hear the door scraping, trying to open, never quite succeeding, and the playlist switched to “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” among other tunes before it reached “Unchained Melody.” It wasn't the song itself so much as the sappy arrangement that got the second wave yearning and churning. Before long I could feel the whole process of eruption begin again.
Like musicians responding to a conductor’s cue, everyone else began joining in, until it seemed it would never stop.
It was a half-hour before they could get the door to open.
Someone tried to explain it, how this ever-increasing flow of lava-like puke, seeping under the door, kept shorting circuits.
* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *
How it played out in our minds, that first time we met, may be only slightly different from reality remembered, an elevator ride at the Washington Monument on our fifth grade field-trip where nothing worse than an occasionally flickering light or a momentary jolt threatened to mar an otherwise uneventful climb. But that was what we imagined, sensing how the other saw it, barely stifling fits of giggles until Miss Messerschmidt – or perhaps, the long-suffering Miss Jameson – thought best to separate us.
Rob – who never let on he was “Robertson” unless he absolutely had to – lived outside Yardley, northeast of Philadelphia. Everyone called me Terry, embarrassed at being saddled with “Terrance Richard Kerr.” (Later, in 7th grade, someone thought calling me “Terrier” was pretty funny: that's when I started going by Richard.)
Our fifth-grade teachers had been college roommates who remained long-time best friends, planning annual field-trips as a joint venture, giving us an opportunity to meet some kids from outside our school district. The Doylestown kids, the first on the bus, got the window seats; the Yardley kids sat on the aisle.
I don’t know how it worked out for any of the other students who were paired up so arbitrarily, but Rob and I immediately become good friends, remaining close ever since.
Our birthdays were a day apart, giving him a few hours’ seniority, which, he argued, made him the wiser, more experienced if not better of the two, expert in all things. Living only twenty miles apart, we decided we should stay in contact with frequent phone calls and occasional visits. Since most of our activities involved taking the train into Philadelphia for day-time concerts or going to the library, we could travel separately, meet there and not need to arrange sleep-overs. We’d manage this once every month or so, then I’d stay at his place a few times a year but for two summers I went with his family up to Maine. Rob had always seemed older than me, more mature, but I overheard Mother tell Dad once, “Money buys confidence.”
My parents felt uneasy around him because his family was so wealthy, but to me, he was just Rob Sullivan, never treating us condescendingly or “showing off” when coming over for dinner. He was always polite and friendly toward them as I never tried to be obsequious and condescending to his. It wasn’t like they pretended to be someone they weren’t because he was rich and were seeking his approval, but there were times when Dad said things that made me cringe.
His parents, for their part, tolerated me as one of Robbie’s musician friends (read, “poor”) and therefore probably safe but I could hardly wait till dinner at the Sullivans was over – too many forks, I would joke – when we would hide in the library and listen to his dad’s recordings.
That second summer in Maine was for me something of an eye-opener. While the earlier summer I had been one of many visitors allowed on the island for my allotted holiday week, three years later I had been invited for a whole month, apparently having passed some test of his parents. They came, I think, to resent the casualness I exhibited with everyone, as if I didn’t know my place: if Rob and I remained warm, with his parents things chilled considerably.
The differences between us didn’t develop until later, during our senior year, his parents’ indifference toward me no doubt helping. He now had other friends, new satellites demanding more of his attention. We’d known each other as close friends for six years, growing up together (perhaps only me in his orbit). This direction – purposeful and career-bound – was a time for serious refocus, making new choices and determinations about his life. Wasn’t it enough to choose between his music and the family business? It’s not that he had to choose among friends: it happened naturally, like a process of attrition, thinking scientifically. Growing apart, at the time, became logical, as inevitable as growing together. And it wasn’t a sudden break, either, at least not at first, spending less, then even less time together.
A few months before that summer in Maine, Rob met a girl – “the” girl, as he described her – named Beatrice who was very attractive, and together they’d looked like a nice couple. Since he’d been studying Dante and Petrarch in literature class that spring, she became “his” Beatrice, his own muse. While I didn’t find her particularly inspiring beyond being a pretty girl, there was nothing musical about Beatrice Porter that explained why someone talented like Rob saw her as a muse.
I could understand his falling in love, that much was a given, but as I also pointed out that summer a muse by definition was someone who inspired you from afar. He could fall in love with her, I argued, but don’t be so fatalistic about her role as Muse. When school resumed that fall, Rob and Beatrice dated a few times until she eventually decided to “go steady” with another boy, a star on the basketball team named Donald Taylor.
“Oooh,” I remembered joking with him, trying to lighten his loss, “Dante Lore! Well, so much for being fatalistic.” He gave me more of a dismissive snort than a relieved laugh. It may not have been rocket science but I felt sure he blamed me, somehow, for their breaking up.
Other things interfered by the time we graduated. He was going to Harvard to study finance and I was not. My grades were good; his were brilliant, the issue of money aside. I didn’t need ‘brilliant’ to get into a decent college music department, more realistic and affordable than a conservatory. I wanted something that would give me a more solid, well-rounded education if specializing in composition didn’t work out. Rob saw that as my admission to not working hard enough before.
And perhaps I hadn’t, but then he was the one who was “giving up” music despite his hard work. I could still make up lost ground if I worked hard, now. Eventually, Rob took on a music minor, then earned his Harvard degree, realizing music was his preference, not finance.
With this new-found determination, he attended a reunion where he saw Beatrice who’d gone through several boyfriends since Don Taylor. Fate or coincidence, they were soon dating, then engaged and finally married. Perhaps because I was right, Mrs. Beatrice Sullivan understandably never liked me. Rob and I rarely kept in touch.
Much damage had been done in those long years before the divorce, happening only months before his father died. After hearing my wife had just died, too, he got in touch.
The most difficult part of our reconnecting was his making the call, he said, not just thinking about it, procrastinating, opting instead for an immediate response than waiting impatiently for a reply: letters were more difficult to compose and, besides, they tended to get lost in the mail or thrown away. It had been a grey and aimless morning when he called me, while I was still moping around helplessly in that guilt-ridden fog Sondra’s death months earlier had left me in. I couldn’t say I was saddened or relieved over his divorce except to understand the disruption to his life but genuinely sorry he was also suddenly dealing with his father’s loss. Taking care of some unpleasant business at the old house in Yardley, he wondered if I’d mind coming over.
I’d not been following his career that closely, beyond teaching at Juilliard with several prestigious premieres recently, mostly in Europe. I’d bought a couple of his recordings when they first came out. He’d become that famous composer, someone I’d once known as a kid. How did one fill in the gaps? We renewed our friendship gradually, visiting occasionally, talking mostly about “what makes music tick” like we’d done years ago. It surprised me when he said he needs someone he can trust.
Earlier that May, he’d arrived at Benninghurst and immediately got down to the urgent work of finishing the opera, too busy for a visit and then dealing with Franz-Dieter’s unexpected death.
“Hi, it’s Rob – Sullivan… I’m checking in from London. Yeah, I know… on my way back from Dieter's funeral...”
I picked up quickly before he could hang up. “Hi, how’re you? Maybe we could meet at the airport?”
“That’s a good idea but they rerouted me through London into Boston.”
He’d be back at Benninghurst soon and suggested coming down to my place over the weekend, maybe for dinner.
“Sure,” I said, “Good to see you. My schedule’s open, so any…”
“I’m sorry, have to go now, something…” He paused. “I’ll talk to you later.” And then he hung up.
= = = = = = =
To be continued...
- posted by Dick Strawser
The novel, The Lost Chord, is a music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.