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.

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