(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.