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.

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