Friday, August 31, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 3 (Part 1)

In the previous installment, a very strange thing happened to Dr Kerr when he picked up a little ballerina figurine in Tom Purdue's living room: he suddenly found himself transported back in time to an autumn afternoon when he and Tom were grad students at the Faber School of Music, sitting on the Quad watching students strolling by, when Tom sees a dancer named Violetta Diehl and immediately falls in love with her. Later, gathering at the old student hang-out called Café Momus, Kerr observes himself with two other friends, Martin Crotchet and Dottie Minnim, fellow grad students, full of talk about Tom and his new girlfriend, the one they call “Odile,” when Martin asks Terry if maybe he'd rather have coffee...

(If you're just tuning in, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.) 

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of  
In Search of Tom Purdue.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *


“I said, 'would you rather have coffee?' I can't find any tea, here,” Cameron was saying, calling out from the kitchen. “There's regular and decaf, but none of those flavored foo-foo brands you like.”

“I'm sorry, Dr Kerr, but the professor wasn't much of a tea drinker.” Amanda sounded apologetic though I should've remembered that.

“Oh, wait, here's some hot cocoa, Terry, I can mix them,” Cameron added, “so, regular, then?” There was a pause. “Terry? We'll probably need all the caffeine we can get, given the day ahead.”

And the day behind, so far, I thought. So I'm back in Tom Purdue's living room, I'm guessing, given Cameron's voice.

“Yo, Doc, you still with us, there; you haven't gone off someplace weird?”

Cameron poked his head in through the doorway from the kitchen, looking around, then whispered to Amanda, “he does that, sometimes...”

“Oh, sorry,” I said, turning toward the sound of his voice though I was still having trouble focusing on the present, “I was miles away, just lost in my thoughts. I do that, sometimes.” I doubted I'd be able to explain how far away or how lost I really was in 25-hundred words or less. This wasn't the typical daydream I might have, like tuning into some classic TV channel where memories then unfold before me: I was inside them – “on the set” – sitting across from myself, but invisible.

Conversation from the kitchen indicated Cameron and Amanda were only now beginning to boil the water for three cups of coffee, meaning I couldn't have been gone that long, not even a few minutes. How long would it take to travel the distance between here and Massachusetts whether by plane, train, automobile or time machine? No lines waiting to board, no cramped seats, no fear of being killed in a crash, plus landing on a dime – oh, and no going through endless security like it took returning from London.

And, as an added bonus, all while traveling forty-five years into the past, as if any other considerations weren't difficult enough, the only problem recommending it being a lack of control over the destination. That and, I'd imagine, being taken by surprise about the departure time or wondering if you'd make it back in time.

That's the problem, isn't it, that “in time”? Because we experience “time” as a continuous flow – this event, then that event. We perceive time as chronological, moment following moment, like points on a journey, or as I told my students, listening to music flowing past us, a melody with notes in a specific, recognizable order.

While we can watch a ticking clock and see the minute hand move, making us aware of the inexorability of time, we're also conscious when we're enjoying ourselves how time appears to move faster. When I was a child, it felt like it took forever to get from the first day of school to Christmas and then summer flew by in such a hurry before school began again. But it defies “logic” to imagine time as a series of random events, that there could be, somewhere, a parallel universe.

Because I'd picked up this figurine of a ballet dancer in Tom's house and found myself unaccountably whisked back in time – I'm sorry, but I'm trying not to imagine myself executing a grand jété – to the very moment Tom first set eyes on the very ballet dancer he'd later call “the love of my life,” how am I not supposed to imagine the coincidence of these two events, between the picking up and the whisking back, that somehow over the years and space the two are not intrinsically entwined?

“What's that you've got there,” Cameron asked, bringing in a little tray with three mismatched cups, “another of Aunt Jane's trinkets? Oh, I was able to find some tea – you drink green tea, right?”

The cups were obviously Tom's Aunt Jane's and probably, I imagined, had been in the house since before I was born.

“Do you think those tea bags had also once belonged to Aunt Jane?” It seemed like a reasonable question to ask.

“No, actually,” Cameron said, “Tom's very methodical – everything's marked with the purchase date.”

“That's so odd, though,” I said, “considering Tom was such a free spirit when we were friends – well, grad students together.” I set the figurine back down on the end table beside the couch.

“I'm sure you've changed, too, since those days,” Cameron added with a nod.

“Hmm – maybe I've become a little less methodical...”

Cameron didn't respond and with his back to me I couldn't see if he smiled or not, putting down the tray. Well, maybe I've become slightly less methodical since then, but not by much. I think that was one reason Tom and I'd been such good friends, several things in common but lots of differences.

Turning to hand me my cup, a greenish porcelain mug for green tea, Cameron paused and took a few deep sniffs. “Why do I smell cigarettes and beer – I didn't smell it here before.”

While Cameron glanced around, I tried to ignore it, pretending I wasn't aware of it, that he must be imagining it but then hoping he wouldn't get close enough to realize it's my jacket. I felt like someone accused of passing gas and wishing there were more people in the room to share potential blame.

Frankly, I couldn't smell anything out of the ordinary, though after sitting in a smoky bar even for a few minutes, I usually felt my clothes and skin must reek from all the smoke.

But if I were invisible – I mean, nobody indicated they could see me – and if people could pass right through me, how could the smell of cigarettes and beer soak into my jacket, then?

True, my younger, past self accidentally spilled beer on my older, present self but how do you explain that to someone?

Sipping the tea, still too hot, and making a face at its bitterness, I breathed in the steam for a moment – yes, I occasionally drank green tea but that doesn't mean I enjoyed it – when Cameron, tossing his jacket over a chair, went back to the kitchen, no doubt to see what was keeping Amanda. I took off my jacket, shook it out, and gave it a sniff, unable to find any trace of cigarette smoke, much less damp spots on the sleeve where he'd – I'd – spilled the beer.

Then I heard more conversation from the kitchen, Cameron talking quietly to Amanda, while I looked casually around the living room, not sure if anything would shed light on Purdue's situation, whatever that was. There was a coat rack over by the front door, far enough away: perhaps nobody would smell my jacket from there.

Tom's Aunt Jane must've been extremely well read since it didn't look like he had replaced many of her books, either. This old Encyclopedia Britannica, a much-used mid-'50s edition, undoubtedly belonged to his aunt. And here was a whole bookshelf full of old-fashioned, well-worn British murder mysteries, including a row of reference books on poisons. Some of these Tom might have picked up at a used book sale but the police wouldn't care who'd bought them. He wouldn't need a library card to surreptitiously check how to murder someone.

Cameron returned and sat down on the couch, picking up the ballerina figurine, though I almost shouted, “no, don't touch that!” Holding my breath, I was relieved he'd set it back down without incident.

Amanda came in carrying a plateful of cheese and crackers with some hummus, apologizing the professor was not one for entertaining.

I kept a close eye on Cameron who showed no signs he'd disappeared even for a moment into any parallel universe. Was it perhaps because these were memories only Tom and I had shared?

“My little ballerina – I gave that to the professor last Christmas,” Amanda said. “Mother told me it belonged to my grandmother. She'd always dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer and making it big someday.”

Was that all that was needed to activate whatever you called my experience? Even so, it was a pretty tenuous connection.

Since Purdue was working on a ballet with a friend of his who taught at the local dance school in Marple, she thought it might inspire him a little or bring him good luck. “Composers can be funny that way, right?, all very logical about their craft but then still believing in muses and stuff.”

“Yes, I'd heard that somewhere,” I said, smiling, but then suggested she tell us what had been going on earlier today and bring us up to speed on anything else which might prove helpful.

It took a while for her to cover everything, keeping it in order, still having to go back to explain something, particularly about the new computer software he was working on the past year. Tom mentioned his interest in “artificial creativity” before, as interesting as it was, but I wasn't sure how relevant it was.

“I'd love to talk about that later, Amanda, but what was this about a post-it note you'd found – about calling me?”

“Well, about calling this number.” She handed it to me. “It's his handwriting.”

One of the things Tom was well known for in school had been his beautiful calligraphy, his musical handwriting – quite distinctive.

Though it'd been years since I've seen it, it was unmistakably Purdue's handwriting. Since we've recently reconnected, it's been entirely e-mails.

“Can you show me where you'd found this? Maybe there's something else useful.”

“It surprised me when I found this there, going to check on him,” Amanda explained, leading the way up the stairs. The cat raced up ahead of us, then stopped short of the doorway. Once we reached the hallway, she indicated the room where Zeno was waiting in a shaft of sunbeam spotlighting the carpet. “Once the professor was well enough to get around on his own, then, I never needed to come upstairs for anything. But when I didn't see any sign of him downstairs, I thought, well...”

She let her thought trail off to the obvious but I had to ask if she had checked the other rooms. Except for the end room where the cat waited, each door was closed. “Oh, yes,” she said, quietly nodding her head, then pointing out which room was the master bedroom, which the guest rooms.

Amanda carefully opened the door to Purdue's bedroom and stepped aside without looking, afraid she'd see something she hadn't noticed before, like in the interim Purdue had returned and was asleep on the bed. She held back as Cameron and I entered, as if practicing to be a docent in some future Thomas Purdue Museum.

“Had the police already checked these rooms?” I asked, nodding toward the bed.

“No. They didn't ask, but they'd need a warrant, wouldn't they, for that?”

“In that case, Cameron, better not touch anything.”

But the warning was already too late – Cameron had picked up a framed photo by the bed and held it up.

“We don't want to contaminate the crime scene, if it should become one.”

“Crime scene?” Cameron looked over at Amanda who had turned even more pale. “But how could this be a crime scene?”

“Whatever you call it when police come in sifting through everything for clues. There's a term for it – 'scene of interest'?”

“There's 'person of interest,' someone brought in for questioning who might know something...”

Amanda, avoiding eye contact with either of us, clearly wanted to ignore this, afraid even thinking it might make it so.

“What are you trying to say, Dr Kerr – what's happened to the professor?”

“I've no idea, yet, Amanda.” Her voice sounded as pale as she looked. “But we don't need our fingerprints in here.”

Cameron pulled out a handkerchief, looking sheepish as he wiped it clean before he returned it somewhat gingerly to the nightstand.

“Did anybody else visiting Tom handle that photo of him and his ex-wife?”

“Well,” she said, looking around the room expecting to find someone, “not likely. His ex-wife was here twice while he recuperated.”

She automatically started moving out into the hallway, ready to shut the door. Keeping it closed might keep the room safe. By extension, she probably thought it might help keep the professor safe, too.

Since Amanda had already handled the door knobs, I asked her to open the guest rooms to avoid any further “contamination,” but then Cameron and I just stood there, peering in through the doorway. Both rooms were dark, cluttered but fairly neat as unused rooms sometimes are. Who knew what I thought I'd find, anyway.

“And nothing's missing from the bedroom or bathroom, anything which could indicate he'd packed to go away for a few days?”

“No, nothing I can tell, not even his meds – they're in the kitchen.”

I knew she'd gone through all this before but I thought being up here again would help jostle some thoughts loose.

She shrugged her shoulders inconclusively as Zeno meowed. “You should check the study.”

“Zeno seems adamant we should see something, there.”

We stepped around the cat who, after we'd passed him, followed us in.

“Like I said before, Dr Kerr, it surprised me to find this here,” Amanda said and turned on the overhead light. “If he wanted to leave me a message, he would've left it downstairs. Especially since there was really no need for me to come upstairs anymore.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, “you've mentioned that...”

I'd already determined, whatever it did refer to, why someone should call me, it hadn't been left for Amanda to find but for anybody who's looking to discover what happened once something had happened. More importantly, there would be something else left here for me to find, once I'd arrived, something he knew I'd understand, the kind of thing the police or any normal detective couldn't figure out. What kind of event would it have to be to call me in except one the police would never consider pursuing?

“You said he rarely used this studio anymore,” I asked her, looking around. “Why was that? Too much noise from neighbors?”

Cameron, seeing the empty-looking house next door through the curtains, thought that unlikely.

“No, but there was more room for his computer set-up in the basement – he could spread things out a lot more.”

“This room has a forlorn look about it, like it had been abandoned. Did he ever use it for anything else?”

“When he'd prepare his classes but then he was on sabbatical this fall.”

Even though this was Tom's study, Aunt Jane's presence was not far away, aside from the sleek, black upright piano and the bookcases lining any available wall space filled with music books and scores. In the room's center was an old-fashioned, ornately carved desk of dark oak with its roll-top segment and various compartments missing. But otherwise, there was an ancient-looking daybed, a threadbare corner of faded silk left uncovered by haphazardly distributed throws and afghans, a table and chair covered in tattered doilies and a Victorian-era reading lamp.

There were three evenly-spaced piles of music paper neatly arranged across the desktop, apparently blank paper, working sketches and finished pages. To the right of the center pile was a typed list and folder. I noticed this was placed carefully on top, overlapping two of the piles, and positioned propitiously at the piles' golden section.

“The professor was very precise about using his 'study' instead of his 'studio,' and this room he always called his study but,” Amanda explained, “the computer set-up in the basement was always his 'studio.' He started working on it several years ago – I'm not sure, maybe five? – he's only begun composing down there more recently.”

“So he made a complete distinction between the two rooms separated by function, keeping one room totally differentiated from the other.”

“Yes, but most of the time he worked in the studio with Clara.”

“Clara was the assistant who worked here before you, another student of his? Is it common at a small college like Stone-Rawlings for faculty, especially those in the arts, to have assistants like that?”

“No, Dr Kerr,” Amanda said with a laugh, “I've been his only assistant. Clara's the computer project he's been working on.”

“Oh, a natural language processing interface?” Cameron asked (peripherally explaining for my benefit, “some computer-generated personal assistant voice app like Siri”). “So I take it it's a little more complicated than just notation software?”

A distant bell reminded me – Purdue after his surgery, talking nonsense about computers: I'd assumed it was the pain medication talking.

“Yes, he calls the whole program 'Clara,' not only the voice-activated user interface,” Amanda said, shuffling some papers on the desk. “Oh, wait – this is the piece of paper that note was attached to.”

So, who knew how long this note's been sitting here waiting for me? It's been several months since his heart attack. Not that the room seemed particularly dusty, I noticed, left untouched since then. There was a thick layer of dust on top of the upright piano but nothing else to indicate years of neglect.

“He's doing all his composing on the computer, now, using the basement studio? That beautiful calligraphy of his going to waste... Still, it's amusing he's in his mid-60s and suddenly joining the 21st Century.”

“But music notation software was commercially available as far back as the 1990s,” Cameron argued, “and developed even in the mid-'80s: technically, he could've used early versions of Sibelius or Finale thirty years ago.”

“True, but the finale of Sibelius' 2nd dates from 1902,” I argued back, “and he wrote every note down by hand.”

When Amanda picked up the dog-eared folder the list had been paper-clipped to, a number of small newspaper clippings fluttered out, including a few that were yellow and brittle while others were more recent. Embarrassed by her carelessness, she gathered them up, apologizing to nobody in particular, and stuffed them hurriedly back into the folder.

“The note – the one about calling you – had been stuck to this list. For all I know, this could be class-related. It didn't look like a college number, and didn't mention your name, so...”

The strain of the day taking its toll, Amanda again started to apologize to the room in general, her shoulders quivering, in that pathetic, small voice you use when you admit some stupid mistake.

“I'm sorry, but now I wonder,” she said, trying to hide her confusion, “maybe it's only regarding your substituting for him...”

If this had been the desk where he would prepare his class material, I wasn't seeing any textbooks or notebooks out – unless he'd put them away since he was technically on sabbatical this semester. But what did this list and that mysterious note summoning me to his house have to do with his class schedule?

“The note doesn't refer to his heart attack,” I said, picking up a stray clipping which had floated to the floor. “He wasn't thinking who'd take his classes, now. This clipping's dated last Thursday.”

There was a short paragraph circled in red ink, part of a schedule of up-coming events in the Greater Philadelphia area, which listed a guest lecture by “renowned musicologist Martin Crotchet” about Chopin's contemporaries to be given at Haverford College, not far down the road from me, but it was scheduled for Sunday – yesterday afternoon. Curiously, I'd seen Martin – or observed some past student version of him – during that undeniably odd experience I'd had moments ago: now I discover I've missed the chance to see the “real” Martin, live.

“Wow, that was a little unexpected,” I said, handing it back to Amanda who stuffed it carelessly back into the folder. “A friend of mine – and also Tom's, actually – was here in the area. Too bad I didn't know anything about it. I wish Tom had called me so we could've gone to see him.”

After I explained the timing to them and who, vaguely, Martin Crotchet was, Cameron wondered if that's where Tom had gone and so far hadn't gotten back from visiting with an old friend yet.

“I hadn't thought of that, but then I wonder why he hadn't called and asked me to go along with him?”

“But how'd he get there? His car's still in the garage,” Amanda mentioned, “and his medications are still in the kitchen.”

“Yeah, you're right,” Cameron said, “he probably wasn't planning on staying somewhere overnight.”

Then it dawned on me, the obvious solution, in fact so obvious I struck my forehead and uttered the dreaded “D'oh!”

“Of course, Cameron, I don't know why it didn't occur to me sooner!”

The epiphany I experienced apparently wasn't one either of my two friends shared, given their blank expressions waiting for the details.

“Martin,” I explained to them, “stopped by to pick Tom up for breakfast with plans to make a day of it. I imagine they've gone somewhere and they'll probably be back soon – after lunch?”

“He hadn't mentioned anything on Friday,” Amanda said with relief in her voice, “so it could be something that happened spontaneously.”

I admitted I didn't know how much they kept in touch after school.

“But there's still this problem of him being a suspect in a murder.”

“Right – being with Martin will be his alibi.”

The question of locating Martin should be easy enough, I explained to them, and when we do, we'll have found Tom, merely a matter of going through his phone's history to find Martin's number. But Amanda didn't think it was that simple, regardless of the professor's absent-mindedness, wondering why he would leave his phone behind.

“And not only that, Dr Kerr,” Amanda said. “Why would the professor hide his phone between the cushions of his couch?”

It was the major flaw in my optimism, hiding his phone like that.

True, I knew Tom well enough to realize he's become more organized and forgetting his phone was not a likely excuse, especially if he rarely sat on the couch to “accidentally” drop it there. Looking at Cameron for help, knowing he understands people and their cell phones, I noticed he seemed distracted by something outside.

“Amanda,” he said, carefully parting the curtain, “what about the house next door? Does anybody live there? The place looks abandoned.” It had clouded over again, making the old house look even more decrepit.

“Oh, that place's been empty for years,” she said, fishing Tom's phone out of her pocket, “but somebody bought it recently.”

So far, she hadn't met the new owners, or even seen them yet and the professor never mentioned anything about them.

Cameron thought he saw a guy in black prowling around in the yard.

If the police were checking out the neighborhood for clues of Purdue's whereabouts, we probably shouldn't be seen inside his house, so I suggested Cameron stand back from the window before they'd notice him.

“Not that that would matter much, considering your car is parked out front,” he said, “not something they're likely to miss...”

True, we should count on the police's inevitable arrival, probably sooner than later, and avoid any mention of Amanda calling us, saying we had dropped by to see how my friend Tom was doing.

It seemed like a reasonable excuse despite the bad timing of our arrival, and certainly far less suspicious than the truth, but would a spontaneous visit just happen to coordinate with Amanda's being here?

“Much less what we're doing sorting through Tom's papers or checking his phone. And speaking of which, there isn't much time.”

Having said that, I now expected a detective to walk in on us, demanding to know what we were doing there, but during the beat Cameron and I shared glances with Amanda, nothing happened. It was unavoidable, we all knew, so before they arrived, I needed to find Martin's number, call him and locate Tom.

Amanda handed me the Professor's phone which I immediately turned over to Cameron. “Here,” I said, “you'd better check it, please. I wouldn't want to delete something by accident.”

“Like that's never happened before...”

Amanda and I both looked over Cameron's shoulders as he turned on the phone and thumbed his way through various menus.

“Ah, great, here it is,” he said, “before a bunch of dropped calls.”

He punched in something, waited, and held it to his ear, then nodded, handing the phone back when it started ringing.

“Finally, you idiot,” a slightly faded but familiar voice complained, “it's about time! I've been waiting all morning without a word!”

Apparently becoming a “renowned musicologist” has only increased Martin Crotchet's capacity for irritation.

“Hold on a moment, Martin, it's Terry Kerr – how are you, by the...?”

“Terry!? I was expecting Tom Purdue to call...”

“Yes, I'm using his phone – we're trying to find him: is he there?” For some reason, my voice was getting louder.

“No, and why're you shouting at me? I've no idea where he is!”

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

to be continued... 

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 2 (Part 3)

In the previous installment, Dr Kerr and his assistant and would-be student Cameron, drive down to Marple to see what Amanda's call was all about: something about Tom Purdue but she couldn't explain what, over the phone. Both driver and passenger are deep into their own thoughts, but before long, they arrive. While Amanda and Cameron go to the kitchen to get some coffee, Kerr looks around the living room and notices a delicate little knick-knack of a ballet dancer. But then, when he picks it up, he suddenly finds himself miles away – actually, years...

(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of
In Search of Tom Purdue.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

“What the hell was...?” It felt like it happened in a split second – probably less, if I had been paying attention. The last thing I knew, I was standing there holding that ballerina figurine. And now, I'm... – well, where exactly am I? It wasn't Purdue's living room. How did I get here, just like that? No, this place looks familiar – but wait, I haven't been here for years – decades, probably, now that I think of it. The last time was the reunion I attended back in, I guess, 1987. Considering how long it took to get to Purdue's house from my place, how did I get here in a flash? Must be 250 miles and five hours, depending on traffic around New York. Of course, it was more than “how the hell did I get here?” There's also “what am I even doing here?”

Unlike the skies hanging over Tom's place, everything here was sunny and bright, a beautiful autumn day with brilliantly colored leaves, the maples already bright red and that row of gingkos a golden yellow. The vast courtyard was full of people – students, mostly, and the occasional professor – sitting on benches or sprawled across the grass. Yes, of course I would recognize this place – how could I possibly forget? It's not exactly what I would've expected, right? But I'd spent four years of my life here, most of them happy.

The Quad behind the Faber School of Music, a rectangular expanse of park, was an idyllic stretch of grass and trees criss-crossed by paths which, one could argue, were probably established by free-roaming cows, creating a bucolic refuge in the middle of campus where students and faculty alike took their opportunities for a casual meander. One of the jewels in what the university liked to call its crown, Faber was once a highly respected music department until students realized increasing tuition fees did not equal the quality of training.

Back in the days I was there – here – Faber was alive with creativity, with performers who could become soloists and teachers, or instrumentalists who might end up playing in decent orchestras across the country. Now, there were barely enough players to fill out a reasonable student orchestra, the graduate division nearly half what it was.

But why am I here now, in the middle of Faber Quad – we'd called it the “Milbourne J. Pennybags Memorial Quad” – on a beautiful October afternoon with all these students milling about between classes? Aside from that one Dean or long-tenured professor hurrying between classes or meetings, I must be the oldest person in view. Is there some special alumni gathering going on I've been called back for, some event I had promised I would attend, but, having forgotten it, they've somehow snagged me through some new, invasive technology?

I stepped aside, letting a young woman pass before she walked into me, though she didn't even seem to notice me, when someone I nodded to looked right through me like I was invisible. Not that that didn't happen at other times when I'm walking around town, but here it was confusing – and rather chilling.

Had I been transported here through some magical power I'm unaware of? Unlikely. Was I in the midst of a dream? Except I don't remember having the time to fall asleep – not then, anyway. I had picked up something in my hand – wait, what happened to it? I looked around but couldn't find it anywhere.

No, it's like I'm an observer from within, definitely part of the scene, but a hologram inserted into a three-dimensional matrix, unlike Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past viewing everything from the gallery.

I'm a tourist visiting a vaguely familiar place that I should remember better, trying not to twist around left and right, ogling the sights as any out-of-town bumpkin would do right off the bus. Besides, I needed to pay attention, not bump into people on the path, perhaps find a better vantage point further off.

Trying to get my bearings, I stumbled on a patch of uneven pavement broken off near the edge of the path. With any luck, no one will notice how clumsy I must look now.

Hadn't that happened to me my first week here as a new student, flailing my arms to maintain balance and failing? “Great,” I thought, “someone's seen me and waved back – he's headed my way.”

He looked familiar like I should know him – unless it was his father I'd known when we were both students here.

There went one of the older professors in the theory department, Dr Mordent, one of the more boring ones – pushing 60, wasn't he? – yet somehow I'd avoided having to take any of his courses. But there was something odd about seeing him I couldn't quite figure out, except I'm surprised he'd even still be alive.

The student who waved, however, was waving at someone behind me, then walked right through the left side of my body! What a very strange sensation – like... no, like nothing I'd ever felt before!

“Oh, now I recognize him.” Hadn't his father been in my counterpoint class, unless...? – no, I guess it would have to be more likely his grandfather. “God, this is making me feel so old...” But the person he'd been waving at was also someone I immediately recognized, though how could he have changed so little?

Who was that, there: Otto Bielawa? The most obnoxious pianist in the department, or at least the spitting image of him. The man could hardly have spawned offspring that would resemble him so closely.

He was the kind of guy who complained endlessly about practicing six hours at a stretch on the Sibelius Piano Concerto, assuming nobody was smart enough to know Sibelius never wrote a piano concerto.

Plus his shoulder-length hair, cheek-encompassing sideburns, bell-bottom pants and plush purple turtleneck were a fashion throwback straight out of the '70s.

“How goes it, Otto?” the grandson of my fellow student from counterpoint asked. “Still slaving away on your knuckle-busting Sibelius Concerto?”

“Yeah,” Otto smiled, waggling his fingers in the air, “that cadenza's a bitch.”

Wait a minute, I thought, how could they both know Otto's old joke unless that was the real guy from counterpoint?

And that wasn't someone who coincidentally looked a lot like Otto Bielawa – that really was Otto Bielawa! How is this possible?

“Look,” Bielawa smirked, “over there – Kerr and Purdue are apparently becoming great friends.”

I could tell from Otto's plangently simpering tone he was making fun of... “Wait – what?” I blurted out loud, turning around.

There, under the shade of a pine tree, sat Tom Purdue and – me!

What an odd and oddly unsettling sensation it was to be standing there, looking at myself from so many years ago.

I quickly tired of the question recoiling between my conscious and unconscious minds, the constant repetition of “How is this possible?” banging in and out against a pair of unsolicited emotions, disbelief and fear. Believing it was one thing – I mean, here I stood, watching what seemed real enough – but why should I be afraid?

Unless concern about getting back to Purdue's home, to the present, was an issue since I'm no longer holding the figurine: was that the equivalent of my losing the keys to the time machine?

Another if possibly even less pragmatic question was “why, of all times and places I could go, am I here now?”, the logical part of my mind assuming there had to be a reason. There were friends, certainly, and accomplishments I'd remember, but little I found remarkable, thinking more warmly about college than graduate school. Granted, for all the nostalgia that's part of the baggage of middle age, Faber was never one of my favorite destinations despite the limited care-free innocence which punctuated the end of my student life.

If there were places and times I'd return to, whatever I could choose, was this the destination I'd come up with? It's not that I had been particularly happy here or even especially unhappy. Considering everything else that happened, I'd say any wrong turns were made afterward: for the most part, these were uneventful years.

But looking out across the Quad on this distant afternoon, this particular day, it reminded me of some watercolor I'd seen which struck me as being so artlessly simple despite the artist's commanding technique, capturing in brushstrokes the imperceptible fluctuations of time, the vague blending of realities, the unwitting bliss of a fleeting minute's happiness. I could spend my entire life hoping to find somewhere some similar combination of light and shadow, of friendship and contentment, that one moment of happiness so fair you wish it could last forever.

And what of the self I'm looking at, sitting there beside the path, a young man scarcely recognizable over the years, for all our common traits and evolving realizations becoming the man I am? Is the man who's watching him now the man he expected to become? It's just as well he cannot see me.

What a test for my imagination to be standing here in the autumn shade from pines and maples on Faber Quad, relaxing with a friend over lunch following the intellectual stimulation of morning classes, entangled by a dusty figurine in the gloomy suburban house of Purdue's aunt on a day so many questions needed answered.

“Ah,” I thought, asking no one in particular, “help me see the connection; help me find the question and its answer!” But what could I do? What, I wondered, could any of us do?

As long as I'm here (and who knows how much time I might have before I'm somehow suddenly called away again) – and apparently I have nothing better to do (why else am I here?) – I might as well get a little closer and listen to what we – or they – were talking about, Tom and I. Having waved my hand in front of some unsuspecting faces to no response, I've assured myself I am invisible to everyone and can probably sit quite close to us without our sensing my presence.

I was looking at an old photograph, like one I'd found but forgotten, unnoticed, until I was paging through some yearbook, where I'm surprisingly slender, my hair dark, worn long, almost to my shoulders. It'd taken a moment to recognize Young Tom, his blonde hair even longer, his smile and those blue eyes flashing brightly.

What vagaries of age and time separated us from that day to this – I mean, this day until only moments ago – in ways we'd changed or stayed the same, growing one into the other, considering Tom was, most likely, my closest friend these four years: until recently, however, I hadn't seen him for almost thirty.

What happened to the young man I saw sitting here, legs stretched out, propped back on his elbows, smiling at friends, who'd become a bitter, reclusive old man obsessed with health and financial problems?

Weren't we both full of hope and talent, convinced nothing could go wrong, not the “golden boys” of the composition department, yet, but in line for some reasonable teaching positions and a respectable career? With hard work and luck, we anticipated we'd both have our lucky breaks and become successful composers earning awards, recordings – commissions!

That it never happened to me was a cause for disappointment, of course, knowing things would've been different if it had; I couldn't speak for Tom's state of mind during those years in between.

By the time we'd earn our doctorates, we would become the “golden boys”, patted on the back by our proud professors, Tom even winning that special prize for his doctoral composition, the highest accolade.

So, now, he's teaching in a small, faceless community college, no longer composing, and today, somehow, a suspect in a murder.

How long they'd been sitting there talking was hard to say, considering I'd arrived moments ago – I suspect not very long – but it was one of those never-ending discussions that could have continued forever, like today's right-brain/left-brain argument (“which is more important, the brain or the heart?”) but how do we get students to listen? These were stock topics which we – theorists or composers – could start almost anywhere, finding different tangents to follow down different paths: running out of anything else to talk about, this kept the conversation going.

It started in one of our theory classes, somebody talking about ways to help students, especially beginners, listen more effectively by using some systematic way of isolating “individual parameters” of music through aural analysis. By focusing on one element at a time, it would give them direction, listening for sonority, harmony, melody, rhythm or form.

Assuming the difference between “hearing” and “listening,” one being passive, the other active, that “listening” required the inexperienced individual's “intellectual participation,” the goal was to convert those “casual hearers” into more experienced “participating listeners.” Naturally, being a theorist, he'd said it in much more technical, pseudo-scientific terms, but that was the general drift of it.

By giving someone with little experience in talking about the music they'd heard a “process through which they could describe it,” you were developing a more sophisticated listener who could better appreciate your art.

“But that's fine,” I was arguing, defending something I'd missed before joining them, “because it doesn't preclude a purely emotional response. You can still like the sound of something without having to analyze it.”

Tom tossed his head back, looking up into the sky for a moment. “So it's another variation on 'brain versus heart'?”

“Everything,” I sighed, “is a variation on 'brain versus heart' somehow or another,” handing Tom the remaining half of a baguette. I noticed chunks of cheese – Jarlsberg, my favorite – on a napkin between them.

Ripping off a fistful of bread, Tom picked up a few grapes, typically part of our little picnics on the lawn, something of a ritual after Lehrer's counterpoint class, at least in warm weather. He smiled and leaned back, enjoying the soothing noontime sun on his face. I had to admit he looked contented, handsome.

“I'd rather put 'melody' before 'harmony,'” he said, tossing a grape at me – or rather at the younger version of me. “Wouldn't a novice pick up on melody before the finer points of harmony?”

“I suspect they'll discuss whatever points of whatever they know anything about, first, before learning more about the things they don't.”

“Besides, if you made it 'Sonority, Melody, Harmony,' then it would be S-M-H-R-G which is harder to pronounce as an acronym. And why not use 'Form' instead of 'Growth'? Makes it sound positively cancerous...”

“You're entirely too Dionysian to take this seriously.” My younger self threw the grape back at him, narrowly missing his forehead. “The idea of 'Form' is usually too specific – Sonata Form, rounded binary, rondo. This way, get them talking about how a motive expands into a phrase or what cadences mean before getting too technical.”

“Isn't that the point, to get them 'technical,' so they can analyze everything? By the way, this cheese is quite good.”

“You were composing symphonies in the womb; I started late with simple melodies.”

All this talk of Dionysus and Apollo, substitute terms for “Romantic” and “Classical,” not to mention the heart and the brain... How recently had psychiatrists introduced the idea of “right brain” versus “left brain”?

I flicked another grape at Tom with my finger, missing by a mile. Surprised, he turned to follow where it landed.

It was the hour when students took their daily stroll around the campus, the break between lunch and one's afternoon classes, parading past the old Dean of Students sunning herself lizard-like on a bench as she watched them surreptitiously through half-closed eyes, assessing the shortness of this girl's skirt, the tightness of that boy's pants. Sometimes her eyebrows would rise in little arches or her lips part slightly in a bit of an eerily enigmatic smile, responses, we assumed, to reminiscences she was savoring, lounging impotently in the sun.

The popular students, oblivious of the Dean, circulated their way around the Quad and smiled to their friends, talking and laughing, while they made arrangements to meet after dinner or study at the library. From the sidelines, others looked on, wishing they could belong to those circles while still others, like myself, couldn't care less.

The sun reflected brilliantly off the library windows, almost as if on fire, dazzling from the opposite end of the Quad, rising as it did with its commanding presence near the center of campus, and for a few brief moments I found myself nearly blinded when I looked directly at Tom, reduced to a silhouette.

“Did that squirrel just lob a grape at you?” my younger self asked. “Where the hell did that thing come from?”

But I noticed Tom wasn't paying attention to what his friend was saying.

I heard them before I could see them, emerging as if from an eclipse out of the library's blaze of light, the merry sound of a little gaggle of young women, delighted with themselves, but I saw them however imperfectly in my memory without needing any explanation: theater majors, mostly, a dancer at their center.

As the sun moved its position only the slightest fraction, enough to lessen the angle its light had struck the library, the girls came into focus and I could see the old Dean frown.

To Tom, it must have looked the same as he followed that grape, these beautiful girls parading out of the sun as if their sole responsibility was pulling Apollo's chariot right into Dionysus' lair.

For the briefest moment standing there beside us, the dancer met Tom's gaze, tilted her head and smiled before walking away.

Was there in the watercolor I'd recalled earlier something about beautifully dressed people emerging half-unseen out of an aurora of sunlight? I couldn't remember that specifically unless it was from an entirely different painting. Shaking my head, it wouldn't be the first time I'd combined different images to come up with something which didn't exist. Paintings, watercolors, even photographs were not the sort of thing to interest me like music did, sound always dominating the visual. But still, I could imagine a Schubert theme blending into a folk song.

Perhaps that explained why I could never relate to the music of Debussy, one of the most visually oriented of composers, at least those inspired by scenic images or paintings, the impressions of Impressionism. It may be very pretty music, the paintings that inspired them equally enchanting, but most often, neither did anything for me.

Considering the frequency I had trouble recognizing faces or remembering some acquaintance's name, issues that made social situations a frequent concern, often I couldn't recall what someone was wearing even after talking with them. It's not that I had forgotten it already: it never seemed important enough to register with me in the first place.

I couldn't say what these girls wore to tell one from the other, but I remembered there were six of them, a flock of chickadees fluttering along the path with their twittering and laughter.

“Does your logical listening method, this SHMRG paradigm or whatever you'd call it, have a way to determine what is beautiful? Is there eventually some part of the equation which presupposes an aesthetic impact?” Tom continued gazing at them for several seconds once the girls strutted past, long beyond the moment their eyes had met.

Since I'd assumed their appearance had only been an interruption, not an intrusion, this seemed a natural continuation of our discussion. “No, of course not,” I'd answered without hesitation, “it's a purely analytical sequence.”

“What did you think, Terry,” he asked me (or rather, my younger self) in the somewhat detached voice of an examiner, turning back only after he'd watched the little gaggle disappear into the building. “If you saw some girls like them parading around the Quad like that one in particular, would you say 'she's beautiful'?”

“Well, her hair is red – vibrantly red, I would say,” young Kerr hesitated, “almost too red for my taste, in my opinion, and that's what you're after, right – how my mind reacts to them?” It sounded like I was critiquing a performance of a previously unknown piece I thought had “too much bassoon” in it.

I remember this exact scene only vaguely, not word-for-word or, more importantly, thought-for-thought, but I imagine not wanting to appear stupid: even though it was a matter of opinion, it could still be ridiculed.

There was a smile starting to form on Tom's lips, playful at first, a noticeable change my younger self hadn't seen, and I realized I'd walked into a trap regardless how I'd answer him. Watching Tom, then, proved of greater value than being able to watch myself no matter how curious a fascination that was.

But yet I couldn't alter what my actual self had said one beautifully sunny afternoon forty-three years ago, under that tree. Whatever road I'd choose to follow momentarily would clearly be the wrong one.

“She's built like a dancer, with those legs,” I heard myself tell him, “but her proportions aren't well suited for ballet. Her breasts are too large, to be honest, and she's almost too tall.”

“So much for analysis, Terry; what about 'heart'? It can't all be 'brains.' I think,” Tom added, “that I'm in love!”

This is where, I suspect, if I were sitting here watching a movie, the screen would go all wavy as strange music transported me to a different scene without benefit of another Christmas ghost, when I found my present self observing the crowd from a darkened corner of the music school's student hang-out, Café Momus. The lights were still quite dim but I could see the table next to me had a couple of empty chairs, two others already occupied by friends of mine, Dorothy Minnim and Martin Crotchet.

Dottie was a pianist from Boston who had already earned high regard as a specialist in the performance of new music, and whose doctoral recital would include sonatas by Elliott Carter and Pierre Boulez. Martin, who liked to affect a British “atmosphere” despite originally being from Iowa, was a musicology student starting on his doctorate.

My past self, squinting through old-fashioned horned-rim glasses, could barely locate their table in Momus' ever-present smoke and generally poor lighting, carrying a mug of beer he hoped not to spill running into people. Dottie was sending semaphore signals to help with his direction to the chair placing him directly behind where I was sitting.

And not very successfully, I had to admit: I felt some beer drip through my arm as he maneuvered the chair which made me wonder if in any way it might stain my jacket.

“Where's Tom, tonight,” Martin clucked, “out on the town with his red-headed chickadee? Well, too bad they couldn't both join us.” Tossing back the last of his drink, he stared sadly into the glass.

I'm guessing this must be several weeks after Tom had first seen her, not that “red-headed chickadees” had such long legs.

“True, but I don't think Odile likes us very much, Marty,” Dottie said. “I suppose she feels like a fifth wheel.”

“Speaking of fifth, I think I'll go get another scotch: anything for you?”

It's more likely Tom's new girlfriend didn't like the nick-name we'd given her, calling her “Odile” after Tchaikovsky's infamous Black Swan, the evil twin who makes the hero forget his belovèd White Swan, Odette.

When he initially told us the dancer's name was Violetta Diehl, both Dottie and I were sure he'd said “Violette Odile.”

Tom surprised all of us – me, especially – how hard he'd fallen for Violetta, following after her minutes later, discovering her name, learning which dance classes she took, signing up to play piano for them. She kept turning him down whenever he'd ask her out for coffee until she finally gave in, taking pity on him.

She was all he talked about, nothing else, until they started dating; then he had no time to talk at all, no interest in hanging out with us or going to our usual haunts.

His occasional girlfriend, Susan Stenuto, too embarrassed by the suddenness he'd dumped her, didn't want to be around his old friends; even her best friend, Penelope Hart, out of solidarity decided to boycott us.

Now our little circle would become much smaller as Tom pursued his obsession. I remember my sense of being cut adrift.

Dottie and Martin, not exactly a couple in any sense of the word, would soon feel the strain of including me in their “reindeer games” (as I called them) and we'd also drift apart.

But here I was, watching my self, reliving this, wondering if I should do something to change the future – but what?

It stunned me how devastated Tom would be later when Odile ran off, how disastrously close they'd come to getting married.

“Terry, pay attention,” Martin laughed, poking him again. “Would you rather have coffee?”

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

to be continued...

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.

Monday, August 27, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 2 (Part 2)

In the previous installment, we meet Dr T. Richard Kerr, a composer and retired professor of music, relaxing at home. His friend and assistant, a recent college graduate and would-be musician named Cameron Pierce, is deep in the quandaries of young people, thinking about the direction of their future. Kerr is looking forward to a quiet autumn Monday, sitting in the comfort of his den, reading Proust. Until the phone rings...

(If you've just discovered us, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.) 

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of In Search of Tom Purdue.

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It hadn't taken long to get things together and start down the road. Cameron Pierce, as usual, drove the professor's car after going a few minutes out of their way to fill the tank, while Dr T. Richard Kerr – Terry to his friends – sat pensively on the passenger side wondering what the problem might be. Amanda Wences, the intern who worked for Tom Purdue during the Spring Semester, had never called him directly at home before, sending e-mails instead after Tom's heart attack, then following those with sporadic up-dates. Kerr still felt badly he'd had to cancel on his promise to come look after his old friend during his recuperation, only a few days' visit to help Amanda take a brief summer vacation. Another friend in England was dying, he explained, staying on after the funeral for a couple of months, a planned vacation. So far, Kerr hadn't met Amanda face to face during two hospital visits and they'd spoken only once on the phone when Kerr called after Purdue was scheduled to come home following his surgery. By the time Kerr returned from England and could arrange a short stay, Tom no longer needed regular round-the-clock nursing care. Basically, Kerr was waiting to hear from Tom when he'd feel well enough to meet Cameron and possibly arrange a meeting. But not hearing from him, he didn't want to push him about it.

One of the things Kerr was trying not to dwell on, considering the number of years they'd been out of touch, was “what happened to Tom?” also now retired and not a successful composer, at least not successful in the way most of their colleagues in the world of classical music would consider the term. Leaving graduate school behind, armed with their doctorates and years of expert training like many other fresh-minted composers who anticipated success, they left school hoping to land prime academic jobs and attention-grabbing world premieres. But like most of their fellow graduates, it didn't work out that way, the magic quickly wearing off with middle age: some of their most recent pieces he'd heard lacked any sense of conviction. He and Tom were not the only ones considered “full of potential,” there, but none of them, frankly, managed “the jump.”

It was not something they talked about when they'd met for lunch the first time they'd seen each other in years, reconnecting through a mutual friend who somehow discovered how close they were geographically, considering how long it was since Kerr moved back near his home town and Purdue had inherited his aunt's ancient house. “So, what have you been up to these past thirty years?” hardly seemed the best way to rekindle their interrupted friendship, even though “so, what happened to us?” was not far from their thoughts. As close as they'd once been as students, there was no eagerness to keep in touch after such a long hiatus, as if their brief reunion had already reached the limits of its purpose. Had something been left unspoken that last time which soured the intervening years, since neither could remember what had been inferred?

Kerr still hung on to the hope Purdue would remain a good teacher regardless of his professional recognition as a composer, one who'd still have great ideas and insights despite his own talent's limits, something often found with not well-known performers who were the most sought-after teachers, producing some of the most talented artists around. Regardless how well he was able to apply them to his own music, Purdue had a keen understanding of the craft and that foundation was something Cameron could use more than anything right now.

Kerr realized the inconsistency in this argument when it came to Toni Allan – the great-great-granddaughter of his late friend, Frieda Erden – who now lived in England and had already shown considerable promise at 13, where he argued she would be suffocated by rigid teaching at this point but could “blossom naturally” with the right guidance. The difference was Cameron, still a beginner, didn't have that sense of natural flare nor did his mind work without direction, where exercises developing craft, as long as they're not pedantic, might prove stimulating. It had gone well over the summer during their “holiday” after Frieda's funeral, simply talking about music, about how to listen, things that neither of them thought about before nor proved too technically off-putting. But it was clear from Cameron's questions he needed a more academic approach, while Toni's latest pieces showed real, evolving talent.

Another, bigger difference between the two of them, something Kerr hoped would not greatly intimidate Cameron, was Toni's having “perfect pitch,” the ability to hear a note and immediately know what pitch it was which Kerr always felt was cheating if you didn't know how to use it, given how well developed the sense was. Some people simply heard something in their heads and immediately wrote it down without needing to know how it worked: didn't this take the challenge out of it, making it less like work?

Okay, up to a certain point, he'd argue – since the composer's brain was still creating the music, bringing it to life – and it could be useful in transcribing this into something someone could perform; but it might also become a hindrance depending on the type of artist, for one too reliant on his own facility. It would be easier to sit there and wait for “inspiration” to strike, this jukebox magically connected directly to... what, God? – which made the whole creative process mysteriously involuntary, water pouring from the tap.

That's fine if you're a writer using “stream-of-consciousness” and wrote every word down that popped into your head, like spontaneous combustion; but what if you couldn't come up with an idea for a story? That's the difference for any artist, whether knowing your craft or creating intuitively: what happens later, when the ideas dry up?

On the driver's side of the car, Cameron mulled over his own issues which intersected those of his passenger only peripherally, focusing vaguely on his immediate future while brooding over memories of past experiences, long-range plans something he felt best set aside for now, a temporary deferment beyond tapping into one's usual hopes and dreams. He had had too many interests as a child but none of them strong enough to become a unified career goal and now he had a college degree that held little interest for him. Falling in love with Dylan after a concert was not the reason, ultimately, he'd decided to major in psychology in college, nor had he fallen in love with Dylan because of his medical diagnosis. Yes, Asperger's was a subject that interested him and, yes, he loved Dylan, but these facts alone hadn't determined his decision.

Perhaps this disillusionment with his major did affect his relationship with his partner, the magnitude of his dream overwhelming the reality – or had it been the other way around since they began almost simultaneously – but did that mean, given both his professional training and his private life, ending either was necessarily a sign of failure? Whatever happened, as far as he could tell, what it apparently meant was he would need to be sure this time because he felt he'd wasted the last four years on the wrong dreams.

Of course, Cameron was well aware to dream of becoming a musician much less a composer involved even more work, now – “and shouldn't I've had some kind of talent for this to be realistic?” – needing to overcome his almost total lack of the most basic technical training, despite years of conversations about it with Kerr. For all his generosity with Cameron in time and, for that matter, money, Dr Kerr seemed almost afraid to “teach” him, offering him little in the way of encouragement until these last few months.

“I mean,” he thought, sneaking a glance at his passenger, deep in thought, “he's not what you'd call a successful composer but with all that training since his childhood, shouldn't he have accomplished more?” Was this the difference between success and happiness, beyond how they were defined? If he could, Cameron would settle for happiness.

As they continued driving along in companionable silence after they reached the Turnpike, he wondered what happens to these past years now he was officially an adult, presumably independent, no longer a college student, hoping they might lay the groundwork for a future which with any luck would sort itself out before becoming “irretrievably lost.” Recollecting past experiences was nothing new for Cameron who'd recall some childhood occurrence and think “how long ago that feels, now,” thinking it was “half my life ago” rather than “when I was twelve.”

Telling Kerr about it, he could barely remember back when he'd first heard Mahler, how he hadn't liked it very much, before adding “but I was much younger then,” implying how he'd since matured. Still, he wasn't prepared to find these past four years ready to seal off in a separate room, soon fading away.

Several of his more recent experiences, he thought, should be pleasant to recall but in context he viewed them with sadness, many now uncomfortably with a twinge of pain, especially those involving Dylan, having discovered the degree he'd earned, the career he'd chosen, were no longer compelling, his once eternally happy relationship something now mourned.

At times, he thought severing ties with Terry wasn't a bad idea, either, forcing himself to rely on his own abilities, but meanwhile it was a place to live and sometimes life got interesting.

Since he had never bothered to buy a car new enough to have one of those GPS devices installed in it, Kerr was amused when Cameron had to search his phone twice for directions, the second time after being sent the wrong way down a one-way street only a few blocks from their final destination.

“Technology – only as good as far as you can throw it,” Kerr laughed, which unfortunately reminded Cameron of an earlier adventure, his brand new phone sacrificed to the greater good at Schweinwald's opera house.

It had been a running joke between them, Kerr saying he was uncomfortable using a cell phone and always borrowing Cameron's but then either losing, destroying or inevitably sacrificing it “to the greater good.” However, Kerr's been through two phones of his own since their first visit to Phlaumix Court with little hope of changing.

Whatever was going on with Kerr's friend in Marple, however it worried him, Cameron figured there were reasons he kept silent, as much because he had no idea what any of the facts were. Amanda sounded like she wasn't able to tell him anything over the phone, making it difficult not to jump to conclusions. At least now things began to look familiar turning off the main street, meaning they should soon arrive without further mishap. That other time years ago, Kerr explained, he'd approached it from another direction.

The street Tom Purdue lived on was a kind of suburban cul-de-sac in the middle of town over by the cemetery, one created by bad planning after they decided to expand the original cemetery. The old Haine Farm had existed almost intact up until the late 1940s when it was sold to a local developer. The road, Tom once explained to Kerr, had been the original farmhouse lane and so everyone always called it Haine's Lane but when they built other houses along it, it was renamed Marymede Lane.

It was originally intended to reconnect with Marple Road a little further on, about a dozen more houses planned in all, but then the developer died and the project suddenly ran out of money. The township bought up the remaining undeveloped land, nearly doubled the cemetery's acreage, and blocked any proposed extension of the road.

This created a separate village-within-the-town called “Haine's Valley,” despite its being perfectly flat, which in realtor's ads would invariably be described as a “quiet, pleasing cul-de-sac,” without mentioning the adjacent graveyard, speaking of dead-ends. In spite of the two original houses dating from the Civil War Era, the newer houses were all modern mock-Colonials.

Cul-de-sac,” Kerr argued, “sounds pretentious, the plural, officially culs-de-sac sounded even more forced plus, in French, the L should be silent. Besides, the term was never used in France because literally it meant ass-of-the-bag.

Turning off Marple Road, they drove silently past large homes on small lots, pristinely manicured houses neatly spaced on either side, twenty in all as Kerr remembered from his first visit, feeling slightly claustrophobic. A small patch of woods and brush separated them from two older houses with white clapboard, wooden shutters and slate roofs.

The long-empty larger house at the end, still called “The Old Sam Haine Place,” still had that dilapidated look about it: the “for sale” sign was gone but some broken windows upstairs needed replacing. Unfortunately, Purdue's home looked well on its way to becoming its mirror image with several unkempt shrubs punctuated by overgrown weeds.

No doubt eyesores at the end of the block neighbors tried to ignore, there they stood whenever someone used the turn-around. Parking on the street, Cameron quickly clambered out, followed less quickly by Kerr.

Someone watching from the doorway looked quite upset, as if waiting for hours (it had probably felt like that to her), a young woman, most likely the student Kerr talked to on the phone, uncertain whether to open the storm door yet or wait until she's made sure exactly who these particular visitors might be. Kerr, imagining her concern, smiled and waved pleasantly from halfway up the driveway, hoping to appear the very image of reassurance, the woman, nodding with relief, opening the door after Kerr made brief introductions.

But instead of a perky young college student like he'd always imagined her, Kerr saw a woman clearly under considerable stress, one who, given Cameron's recent graduation from college, appeared several years his senior, and who, in a quick and somewhat disturbing flash, reminded him of someone he couldn't immediately place before it was gone.

No matter how much time she may have had, standing there, to practice her “presentation of the facts” to Dr Kerr, Amanda stumbled from one point to another, starting in the middle, then back-tracking, until Kerr tried getting her to slow down when she burst into tears, frustrated whatever she said was making no sense.

Cameron suggested they should go out to the kitchen and get some coffee, hoping a bit of domesticity might distract her while the ritual of being a hostess would put her more at ease.

Left alone in the living room, Kerr glanced around at the old-fashioned “old lady comfort” which amused him the first time, how little had apparently changed over the years since Purdue's aunt had died. Most men, under the circumstances, would probably have completely redecorated the place, getting rid of knick-knacks, replacing old furniture with new.

But after seeing the outside which had not been well taken care of, Kerr thought the problem wasn't “reluctance toward change,” but, like any procrastinator, more a situation of “the house that Tom forgot.”

Looking over Purdue's reading table, Kerr could hear Cameron talking quietly to Amanda who showed him where the “coffee things” were, when he noticed a glazed figurine of a delicate ballerina in piqué arabesque.

Picking it up carefully, he heard Cameron ask him about tea or coffee but Kerr was already miles away – actually, years...

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

to be continued...

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.

Friday, August 24, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 2 (Part 1)

In the previous installment, Amanda, Dr Purdue's student intern, is dealing with the discovery that not only has Alma, a close friend, been murdered on the first day on the new job (the one she'd told her about in the first place), the police are also considering her boss, Dr. Thomas Purdue, composer and friend, a suspect in that murder! Then she discovers the Professor's phone hidden (she assumes) in between cushions on the couch which, combined with the odd note she'd found upstairs, asking her to call this number should anything happen to him (whatever that meant), makes the situation sound all the more ominous. After receiving one more unsettling visit, this time from the International Music Police – a detective named Sarah Bond who just appeared in the middle of Purdue's kitchen – Amanda decides it's now time to call that number.

(If you've just discovered this novel, you can read it from the beginning, here.)

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of In Search of Tom Purdue.

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The phone in the kitchen started ringing, the first annoyance of the morning, and even though it was no longer early – I'd dragged myself out of bed around 9:00, still tired after sleeping poorly – the reminder there was an outside world to intrude on my reality was enough to ruin the start of the day. The house where I'd lived for twenty-some years, nestled along tree-lined Conan Lane on the periphery of Doylestown, a Philadelphia suburb, was capable of supplying enough of those intrusions without relying on the telephone. Given the frequency of wrong numbers and telemarketers, I never answered my phone, not until after the answering machine kicked in and I knew if it was somebody I would want to talk to. Mostly, they hung up before the message finished but often it was some robot saying “Press one, now” – which I declined.

There was a certain gratification knowing some idiot had dialed the wrong number, hanging up before having to acknowledge his incompetence, but then he could immediately call me back, convinced he'd done everything correctly. And then, should I pick up and answer “You've reached the wrong number,” and hang up, hoping he'd get the message? I'd stand there for a moment waiting to see what would happen, half-daring them to hang up, then disappointed it didn't. It would be much easier, as Cameron pointed out, just to ignore it.

I had moved on to my second cup of coffee to no avail, despite being “awake” now for over an hour (and I use the term only in the loosest sense of the word). It would be a misnomer to describe this rather vague state of consciousness as anything comparable to my being fully engaged. Given the coffee was instant and I watered it down with some cocoa explained why the anticipated boost was conspicuously absent. For me, it was enough it tasted good without the desired caffeinated jolt.

On the other hand, I wondered if that's what this Monday morning needed to jump start the old professor more effectively. Or maybe a more energizing book to read, perhaps some mystery or thriller. Exercising or going for a brisk walk through the neighborhood might also help. The mere thought of exercise made me shudder.

I returned to the den which Sondra used to call the “cozy room,” now a starker kind of coziness with its matching chairs and simpler lamps but the same restful view of the yard. Everything had been a little over-stuffed and careworn, the room a little over-cluttered, things which hadn't changed much since Sondra died. Sometimes it still felt like I'd walked into the wrong room by mistake, after replacing everything with new furniture this summer. Cameron had no idea what a huge change that had been for me.

That was part of the problem, I guessed, waking up under-rested like this, not knowing exactly where you were (or when), plus I hated waking up during the night to the sound of cat-barfing. After locating it and getting everything cleaned up, I couldn't fall back asleep, so I thought I'd stay awake and read.

It reminded me of the opening passages of Swann's Way all over again, the unlimited expanse of time which unfolded slowly, how the narrator of this huge book which you've agreed to participate in had difficulty falling asleep and in the process of constant tossing and turning created within its pages this vast parallel universe.

I've been savoring this latest reading project of mine since this past April – and wasn't it a “savory” kind of morning with nothing to do today but curl up in a chair and read?

Originally, I thought of skipping yesterday afternoon's concert because I only had thirteen pages to go before I'd finish Swann's Way, having bogged down in the midst of “Swann in Love” over the summer, but thought how closing one book, then turning immediately to begin the next was a moment of continuity also worth savoring. This was the third time I'd read the first volume of Proust but only the second time for the whole novel, and the first time going from one to the next without a break.

Yes, the tickets had already been paid for and I had promised some friends Cameron and I would see them there – plus it was, after all, their first concert of the season, “opening night.” While I could've skipped an all-Baroque medley of trio sonatas and harpsichord pieces, even expertly played, I'd begrudgingly set Proust aside.

Following the concert, some of my former students, leftovers from my college-teaching days, out to enjoy a mild evening for mid-October, cornered me in the parking lot and talked for almost half an hour. Cameron, who stood uninvolved on the periphery and tried not to act bored, became sullen and withdrawn on the drive home.

After dinner, he took a beer and sat (probably sulking) on the patio while I retired to my bedroom to read, Proust unfavorably comparing the Present to memories of Mme Swann from his Past.

Apparently, Cameron's pulling out of the driveway was what woke me up finally, after dropping off to sleep some ten pages into the opening scene of Proust's second volume with the old ambassador, Norpois, the lamp next to the bed still lit when I peeled my eyes open, the book draped haphazardly across my chest. Usually, I don't read sitting up in bed, preferring an old wing-back chair; but after I'd cleaned up the cat barf, I probably decided against spending the night with my chin on my chest.

My brain, which still struggled toward the light, reminded me it was Monday, a whole day with nothing ahead of me as I dragged my book and the rest of me down the stairs. While the oatmeal cooked in the microwave, I wasted a few multi-tasking minutes to check my e-mail for anything important – nothing.

One of those chirpy newsletters for senior citizens from some well-meaning health organization which I might skim through but usually ignored promised to enlighten me about the “Five Things Successful People Do Before 8am,” like Lewis Carroll's suggestion we should all do “six impossible things before breakfast,” anticipating most self-help books I've ever glanced at. Considering it's a few minutes past 9:00 and I hadn't yet eaten breakfast, my day was by definition doomed to fail, having missed that boat a long time ago, whatever other clichés may apply. The advice focused on exercising and eating a healthy breakfast, as you'd expect, along with making lists of things to accomplish, but also taking time to visualize completing those things you hope to do. But if that was important to you, wouldn't you already be doing it? I skipped over what the fifth thing was.

Ever since I was retired – people still looked at me when I said that in the passive voice, only because it sounded better than saying “fired” – I wanted to wake up two hours earlier, because I sometimes found those early morning hours were for me more productive, at least when I still felt like composing. But it was quite some time since I last wanted to write anything, even with all the time in the world, though it's as much my “self-inconfidence” to blame as any lack of purpose.

Whenever I read this scene with Ambassador Norpois and his rambling dinner conversation, picking up where I'd left off over night, where the young narrator hopes for positive reinforcement about a possible writing career, my heart ached for any young would-be artist who's had his dreams carelessly destroyed by someone dropping such thoughtless, casual remarks. How many times had I let some unguarded comment slip, I often wondered, which might have had a similarly discouraging affect? Despite not making much of it here, its impact lingers throughout Proust's novel.

After trouncing the boy's favorite author – clearly the model for his little essay – putting down the “flute-players” of the “Art-for-Art's-Sake School,” it was clear Norpois thought the boy had not a shred of talent. “I became once more acutely aware of my own intellectual poverty,” the boy confides, that “I had no gift for writing.”

Yet which is worse: something depressingly numbing or such obsequious praise where your little morsel of talent is hailed as “genius,” where every child with anything above the ordinary is touted as a “prodigy,” even before today's overly protective attitudes came along to declare everyone a winner and receiving a trophy simply for showing up? Yet the most casual remark made in passing, intended as the slightest criticism, can be misunderstood and taken the wrong way until it replays constantly in the student's mind, long forgotten by the teacher.

And here was Cameron Pierce, a friend and my assistant for four years, freshly graduated from college with an uncertain future, wondering whether to pursue further studies in a field he's lost interest in. After studying violin since he was a child, and always interested in music, recently he's been curious about becoming a composer.

Part of the “deal” with him helping me out would be informal lessons about music in general, part appreciation, history, theory, his curiosity always excited by music he'd heard or the adventures we'd experienced; so, considering my being a composer and all the other composers he's met, it shouldn't surprise me something would rub off.

But when he showed me some of his first efforts this past spring, not the musical equivalent of children's refrigerator art, I realized it was time for serious lessons though not, probably, with me.

This wasn't the news Cameron was hoping for and he was clearly disappointed – lessons, yes, but why go to someone else? Did I think he wasn't good enough for me to take him on? I tried explaining I was too close to him personally to be unbiased and perhaps we should get a second opinion. He would need someone who could be firm, teach him the necessary discipline – our friendship might be too casual for discipline – and above all a teacher whose criticism would not be taken so personally. And I thought an old friend might be a good place to start, asking him for some sort of impartial evaluation, someone from grad school I'd only recently reconnected with after years of silence. Tom Purdue lived not far away in Marple, a suburb closer to Philadelphia: would he have some time in his schedule?

Like me, Tom had a great deal of promise which never quite materialized, neither one of us finding fame or fortune, even if he was now reduced to teaching as a part-time adjunct professor. He had always been a good composition teacher, emphasizing the basic technical skills which was what a late-bloomer like Cameron needed. Unfortunately, following Tom's heart attack after we'd talked, right before Spring Semester ended, we had to put all this on hold, asking Tom to get back in touch once he felt up to it.

Our own plans changed as well when my friend LauraLynn Harty called from England to say her Aunt Frieda was dying and, given she was 96, suggested we should get there sooner than later. LauraLynn had been a childhood friend of mine and I'd known Frieda, ironically LauraLynn's future husband's aunt, over half my life. We'd shared many adventures these past few years, reuniting at LauraLynn's wedding that one snow-bound December – was it two years ago? – discovering Frieda F. Erden there, still alive and well after thirty-some years' silence.

True, these reunions had been difficult, each garnished with a gruesome murder – LauraLynn's cousin Rob, then Frieda's long-time lover, Hans-Jörg Schnellenlauter – but both Cameron and I felt the need to say good-bye to Frieda. In a way, I owed her so much, something I couldn't easily explain, so we left for London the next day.

It was good to manage even the few days we had with Frieda before she began to slip away from us, almost as if, as several people would mention, she'd been waiting for us, worn out from a long, not always easy life with its numerous disappointments but better now since she'd discovered her great-great-granddaughter. That whole adventure surrounding Toni's revelation the week before LauraLynn's and Burnson's wedding, not to mention the unmasking of several killers, was enough to tie together numerous generational strands, and that counted for something.

When she saw us enter her darkened room, her subtle anxieties increased immediately until we'd promised to continue looking after Toni, renewing this rather vague vow to watch over and protect her family's heritage. This struck the others, especially LauraLynn, as another of those inevitably curious mysteries, best left unquestioned, that linger on the mind.

Afterward, then, I felt Frieda, now at peace, let go of this world. She died quietly a couple days later, during Cameron's and my afternoon watch shortly after Vector the butler brought in tea. With a few additional friends stopping by, the funeral was a simple affair full of rambling, half-formed recollections and many silences.

It's never easy to say goodbye, given what we'd only recently found out, knowing there was more we needed to understand; plus it was clear Vector had something to tell us before we left.

LauraLynn's husband had already invited us to spend the summer at Phlaumix Court, his family's ancestral mansion of most unusual proportions, especially welcome since the wedding had been in the depths of deepest winter, so we made arrangements to expand our plans and stay on after the funeral before our official holiday was to start. Burnson's invitation created minor problems, nothing my non-existent schedule couldn't handle nor Cameron's current situation, recently graduated and unemployed, adapt to, the biggest concern making sure my neighbor could look in on the cats. I was able to keep up with Tom Purdue's recuperation over the summer through weekly e-mail up-dates from his intern, Amanda, apologizing for being unable to come down and help on an occasional weekend; and the couple of book reviews I'd promised could be written anywhere once Cameron miraculously retrieved files from my home computer.

Plus I knew it would be good for him, evaporated career goals aside, given the tension with his father wasn't improving and breaking up with Dylan after four years had proven a deeper wound. If this could serve as a distraction, fine, and it might give him a chance to sort a few things out. I joked he should think of our little jaunt through the English countryside as a mini-version of the old “Grand Tour” young men used to take between university and settling down into some profession.

Once LauraLynn and Burnson left for a business trip to Rome and Burnson's mother, Vexilla, returned to her “bungalow” in Provençe, Cameron and I were left more or less on our own with Toni. It gave us an opportunity for short side-trips of a day or two with weeks on end to talk about music. As a composer, Toni wasn't advanced enough to be writing secure pieces yet but then she'd only turned 15 in June: what she was writing, though, showed a surprisingly developed level of natural talent.

We arranged this expanse of time around us and filled it with listening to recordings in Phlaumix Court's opulent music room or paging through scores as we sat on the lawn or the terrace. I wouldn't call these “lessons” exactly but it allowed them both to develop a different way of thinking about the music.

Movement out in my backyard, partly hidden by the patio, caught my eye, an involuntary response on this unusually quiet morning, the birds and squirrels having taken a break and chipmunks nowhere in sight. Since Cameron had already put out the morning's ration of birdseed, it would have been picked over pretty thoroughly by now. Ordinarily, sitting here in my favorite reading chair, I wouldn't be able to see all of my yard from the den, any motion at the far end lost behind the azaleas which needed pruning. Of course, I hadn't exactly been concentrating on the book I still held, going in one eye and out the other, so naturally I also managed to miss whatever I'd seen that surprised me. Even scrunching my brows together did no good as I tried to focus, for whatever it was had dissolved into shadows.

Perhaps Cameron had come back and, since there was little neighborhood traffic this morning, startled something getting out of his car, perhaps the groundhog which spent most of the summer terrorizing Mrs. Quickly's garden. No, whatever I had seen, it was too long-legged to be a groundhog, especially the old, low-slung grandad we called “Sherman.” But I hadn't heard a car drive up – though I could've missed that – and certainly hadn't heard a car door slam. Besides, I'm sure Cameron would've come inside now once he'd parked the car.

Between the two large trees, especially the maple, there was a great deal of shade even on sunny mornings like today, the bushes and a blue spruce along the property line affording considerable privacy, enough Cameron could feel comfortable sitting out on the patio naked on warmer days, confident no one would see him there. Never a big fan of having neighbors who could look in my windows, I always preferred the seclusion my yard offered even though I also knew neighbors couldn't see anyone breaking into my house.

Closing my book, I realized I should ask Mrs. Quickly across the street – and reminding myself to call her Mrs Quigley – if she had seen anything unusual earlier this summer while we'd been gone: if anything was going on even remotely suspicious, from slow-moving cars to prowlers, she'd be the one to know about it.

Maybe this wasn't the best time to get up and move around so a prospective intruder would realize someone was home, as if that would scare off today's brand of “home invader” any more; as if anyone lurking in the shadows intently scoping out my house would care about lights going on at this hour. We spend so much time and money making our houses reflect our success, then become suspicious of anyone driving slowly by, as if the nicer the house the louder it says, “steal from me!”

This was a nice neighborhood, full of mostly retired couples and older individuals than young two-income, multi-vehicle families with school-aged children, our older demographic an easier mark with more cash and jewelry lying around, unless my would-be intruder has decided Cameron may be the real target here, a young twenty-something with state-of-the-art technology worth stealing.

On the other hand, it gradually dawned on me, now frozen into indecision, wouldn't getting up and walking past the windows make me a better target for any would-be assassin sent to kill me? How easy it was for one of SHMRG's agents to locate my address or pass it on to the Guidonian Hand.

Not only should I not stand up and make myself visible, perhaps I ought to crawl over to the basement door? Is their intent to kill me in what looks like a routine break-in?

No, now I'm just being paranoid, I thought, all these things I'm imagining – a SHMRG spy or Guidonian Hand assassin, indeed – the results of having walked into some murder investigation or pre-existing, hare-brained plot, nothing that involved anything so direct where they would risk coming after me and openly threaten me in my own home. Plus it's been almost two years since our last encounter at LauraLynn's wedding: I mean, it's not like I'm pursuing them. Unless they're planning something new and nefarious and this is a pre-emptive strike...?

Besides, what would they be after, what would I possibly have they'd want? Is there something they think I've stumbled upon? And given all of that – none of which I could answer – why now? Somehow, I had this sinking feeling I was about to find out something which, no matter what, would find me first.

At last report from the IMP – the International Music Police – N. Ron Steele, the C.E.O. of SHMRG, was still in hiding, not yet fully recovered after having being shot trying to escape at Schweinwald. There was recent talk about some power struggle with his henchman, Lucifer Darke, but now, it seemed, Steele was getting stronger.

And there was something else unsettling Vector had told me over the summer, news about the nemesis of Frieda's family legacy: it seems the former head of the Guidonian Hand, Carmen Díaz-Éray, has resurfaced.

While SHMRG, a company Steele built from the simplest beginnings, represented everything evil one could imagine about the classical music industry – including plots to kill the Great (if already dead) Composers of the Past – it was their merging with the Guidonian Hand which proved the most worrisome, out to destroy the descendents of Beethoven's daughter.

Once SHMRG revealed they wanted to sign the current heir as a client in order to control her huge earnings potential, the Hand, preferring to kill them all instead, chose to dissolve the merger.

If what Vector said was true about Díaz-Éray being back in the picture, was she positive Toni was their intended target? In which case, was it wise to leave Toni there at Phlaumix Court?

Leaves scattered in a swirl, loosened by a stray breeze, perhaps a squirrel. No, perhaps it was only the neighbors' cat.

This time I was sure I heard a car in the driveway, an engine shutting off, a car door slamming shut, which meant Cameron would soon walk through the back door into the kitchen. Since I wasn't expecting any visitors this morning, I assumed he was back from his errands, whatever that might have entailed. I hadn't paid any attention to how long he might have been gone – it was almost two hours since I woke up and here I was, still in my robe, drinking coffee and reading. And whatever got me worrying about a potential assassin, I had no idea! See a cat or something lurking in the bushes and suddenly I'm on a hit list for the dastardly Guidonian Hand! It would be preposterous to imagine they would be out to kill me, much less Cameron, but stranger things have happened...

It could still warm up to be a beautiful autumn day, bright, crisp, the trees not yet at their most colorful, with a breeze not quite strong enough to bring down too many leaves. My maple might become a blaze of orange – the Japanese maple standing centered in front of the hedgerow already brilliant red. Technically, I know we'd need to have a “killer frost” before a day like this would officially be called “Indian Summer,” but let's not rush the season with another harsh winter beyond the horizon.

Without something to involve him, keep him busy, Cameron was understandably restless, roaming about the house in search of something interesting, stuck out here in suburbia with nothing to do but think about Dylan. I was sorry they'd gone their separate ways – he told me they hadn't “officially broken up” – but I'd seen it coming. After we returned from LauraLynn's wedding, Dylan changed, becoming more withdrawn at times which his doctor wasn't attributing to his Asperger's, though I was thinking it was more his parents' attitude toward Cameron's influence.

Dylan's mother blamed it on us and our adventures, despite its starting long after he'd been kidnapped by that old woman, even though I assured them, time travel aside, she'd never bother them again. But how do you explain, unless Klangfarben did discover the secret of immortality, she'd probably be 270 years old by now?

And now, Cameron wanted to become a composer – perhaps a fantasy to distract his emotional state – and found this dream unrealistic, as if a summer with a 15-year-old prodigy hadn't made it difficult enough. Toni, for all her lack of training, still composed with an enviable ease, often effortlessly productive, which reminded me of Schubert. Much of the time the three of us spent that idyllic summer, listening to and talking about music all day, wasn't so technical they'd had trouble understanding it but Toni absorbed it more quickly.

That was one of the many things bothering Cameron even before we returned, how sometimes she would explain it to him, this child who was eight years younger than he was, sounding so superior. Listening to Dylan talk endlessly about Beethoven, he had absorbed lots of facts, but intuitive, emotional responses were essentially something new.

Instead of coming in through the kitchen, Cameron walked around the back onto the patio, carrying a new book with him, his light windbreaker unzipped and shirt open a few buttons despite the chill, stopping when he saw me to wave with his hand holding the book (as if I could see what it was).

But when the phone began ringing again, he came in to answer it. Someone started leaving a message, a young woman. As soon as she spoke, he picked up.

“Oh, hello, Amanda – everything okay?”

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to be continued...

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.