Wednesday, November 28, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 25 (Part 2)

In the previous installment, Dr Kerr inadvertently arrives in front of a New York City brownstone on a winter's afternoon as the Kapellmeister continues his search for the Belcher Codex and discovers he is about to enter the home of Charles Ives. While the composer is working at the piano somewhere upstairs – sounds of a creative struggle wafting down with occasional pauses – the Kapellmeister engages in conversation with family friend Dashiel Quigg who just happens to be related to Miss Norton from their earlier Harvard visit, both descended from Supply Belcher. In the process, he finds out the recent history of the Codex. It seems, after it had been given to Ives who hated the thing, Mrs Ives thought it too good to just throw away so when their daughter Edith wanted to turn it into clothes for her dolls and upholstery and drapes for her doll house, she figured “why not?” Just then, Ives comes downstairs, distraught to realize he can no longer compose.

(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.

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


It was stunning to see the composer of such vibrant music turned into someone so vulnerable, so weak, at such a low point in his life and his career (which to many were essentially the same thing). It was a powerful reminder how much the artist pays for the ability to create such works that amaze or inspire us – the Concord Sonata and the Fourth Symphony came to mind. What I'd seen in that brief instant was the shell of a man, truly one who had burned himself out. Perhaps it is best for those of us in the audience, listening to his hard-fought accomplishments, not to dwell on the risks of creativity with their personal toll. People may read about Beethoven's deafness and marvel he was able to overcome it, but we tend to ignore the pain it cost him to accomplish that.

I tried some quick mental math, never my long-suit, but if this was 1926, according to that journal I saw sitting on the table, then Ives could only have been... what, 52? That made what I'd just witnessed even sadder. If he had almost thirty more years left, had he, after this, given up composing? Was this a one-time attack of self-doubt or one of several? Was it the one that did him in, or would he sit down in a few days to find everything falling into place?

Everybody – well, anybody involved with Classical Music – probably knows the story of Charles Ives the isolated genius, scribbling away and hiding everything in his desk drawer, whether they like his music or didn't even know it beyond a few pieces like “The Unanswered Question” or those “Variations on America,” composed when he was a teenager. But like most things in the pantheon of Classical Music, that's a mere gloss, treating him like a self-taught “primitive,” the musical equivalent of Grandma Moses unaware of any more “necessary” refinements of craft.

What would have happened if I had been able to “talk shop” with Ives, preferably on a better day than this, one when he'd made a breakthrough trying to notate some of those spectacular effects we call “Ivesian”: did he really hear all that in his head or was he just trying to be complicated?

It was difficult to imagine two introverts like Ives and me trying to make conversation. We might have felt comfortable talking about the details – what he felt was important in what he composed or even how he approached composing – yet how did Ives react to strangers, especially other composers he might have been suspicious of? And what if, like some gushing fan, I'd blurted out how much I liked his Piano Trio which I knew had been written by 1914 or so, but forgot hadn't been performed until 1948?

No, things had begun moving too quickly for me to process everything that had or had almost happened, so close and yet as distant as any of those harmonic reverberations Ives often used to end his works. There had been no time, once I realized where we were, to imagine what questions I could ask.

And yet the Kapellmeister, aware his quest was over, refused to admit defeat. What could he hope to do after hearing confirmation the Codex had been destroyed: reassemble it from fragments like Lemminkaïnen's Mother? While they were distracted, could he grab the dolls and take off with the dollhouse itself? (The thing was, admittedly, huge.)

Couldn't he manage to go back a few years earlier, back to the time Ives had tossed the scroll on the floor after Quigg presented it to him, and rescue it from Edie's scissors?

The Kapellmeister sighed again, reading my mind, placed his arm on my shoulder and, staring me in the face, thought his own thoughts in reply. I'd forgotten the Time-Traveler's Rule about not changing history. “You might want to stop Lincoln's Assassination, say, assuming the future will be better, but there's no guarantee it would be.”

I had to laugh, staring back at him, wondering what anybody watching us might have thought. “Surely, this isn't a 'momentous event' like Lincoln's Assassination? Acquiring some manuscript is hardly on the same level?”

Originally, he was looking for clues to locate where the Codex was now so he could acquire it in the present.

“But isn't all of this,” I argued, sweeping my arm to take in everything around us – not only Ives' house but all the houses, streets, trees and cars we could see – “isn't this now?”

What was the big deal if Lady Beautiful never got her frontier skirt or the dollhouse she inhabited would never have been refurbished with rustic draperies, wallpaper and upholstery made of scraps of vintage leather? Surely no great historic event of the future was going to be compromised by such a minor loss, would it?

Couldn't I just go back a few days and rescue Tom Purdue before he was abducted, before all this started? Would it change history so drastically anyone checking out who's breaking rules would notice?

Mr Quigg hurried over to us and apologized for the abrupt leave-taking, apologizing as well for not having kept the leather commandments instead of giving them to Charlie. “Just think, then they would still be safe,” he laughed, shaking his head. “And if I'd had any idea it belonged to my family! Such an astonishing...”

Unfortunately, the Kapellmeister had already reached for his Tonic Screwdriver which, I gathered from my past experiences, meant it was Traveling Time. Ready or not, it was too late now to stop our departure.

Next stop, I thought, would be my safe return to the tunnel outside Purdue's basement – unless the Kapellmeister had some hare-brained scheme to check out another era to circumvent the destruction of Belcher's Codex.

If we're going back again, not forward, it would be too tempting to break the very code he insisted on upholding.

Despite the astonished looks on the faces of Mr Quigg and his son, their cries of surprise were drowned out by a rapidly ascending sequence of dominant-to-tonic cadences swirling through the Circle of Fifths. I had no idea where we started from and it was spiraling too fast to keep track of the rapid-fire modulations.

And this time, it's only some ninety years' distance till I can get back to Purdue's: what could possibly go wrong?

No, wait, let me rephrase that: “Where the hell is the damned Kapellmeister?”

All I can see around me is lots of darkness. The street, the bare branches of the tree overhead, even the old-fashioned car we were standing next to had all dissolved into the darkness. But the other times, wasn't the Kapellmeister's hand on my arm; wasn't there some kind of physical contact? Where was he?

I was sure I hadn't been alone the other times. I felt like a child left on a bus without a chaperone. When would I know to pull the cord – the chord! – in this vertiginously accelerating progression so the bus would stop and let me off, safely, at my destination? Who was driving this bus!?

The whoosh of cadences, starting so low I felt they rose from the ground beneath me, quickly evaporated into the stratosphere and soon reached a level only the most harmonically astute dogs could appreciate.

There was no sense of flying, no streaming hair nor wind slamming into my face, no weighty pull of gravity making me think my skin was being pulled off: I was just standing there. Then I sensed the darkness turn into mist, somehow, though I couldn't see it, not even sure I could feel it. My ears, though, felt as if they'd been stuffed with cotton and would need to pop once the air pressure dropped. Was I in a plane? How high were we flying? Were we flying?

We couldn't be flying, we're not traveling through space (are we?). If we're flying through Time, that has to work differently. No, hang on – something's taking shape through this haze. The darkness is clearing. There's no sense of landing, and now I'm standing in a different place. Is that a window? I think I'm inside.

Wait! Yes, that's a window, I can make out some drapes – heavy and dark – but that lamp's leaning against a table and there are books and papers all over the floor. What a mess! But no, I hear voices behind me, two people, muffled, running up from some great distance, rapidly closing in on me. Did I cause this when I ended up landing here, like the blades of a helicopter? Where the hell am I? Somebody's going to be pissed... Can I straighten this up before anybody notices?

My ears popped with such force, I thought it would knock my head off and I ducked when I saw the flash of light, nearly losing my balance. A woman screamed with ear-splitting volume.

“Wait,” I start to say, “don't worry, I can explain” – (no, I can't!). I turned around and saw... what, exactly?


A large woman stood in front of a desk, waving her arms like a semaphore, her eyes wide and fearfully white. I thought she had seen a ghost but she wasn't looking at me. Then I realized what she was staring at: not me, but a tall, skinny man all in black standing between us.

He wheeled around, apparently noticing the burst of light, and saw me. He swung his arms wide as he, too, screamed. Something he was holding in his outstretched hand glared brilliantly in the flash.

Conditioned by a generation of bad Hollywood films where some great, horrific moment, when seen from the protagonist's eyes, suddenly turned into slow motion, everything before me immediately started moving at greatly reduced speeds, including the ornate lamp she knocked off the desk which fell to the floor in a prolonged tinkle of shattering glass. Bursts of light reflected piercingly off the glass of several framed photographs hung on the walls and made me want to wince except I found it impossible to close my eyes even to blink. Sweeping across the room as I turned to face these people behind me, I was conscious of asking no one in particular if I was in the past or some other present moment not far from Tom Purdue's house that I happened upon accidentally, or had I somehow missed the mark of my return completely?

But rather than a series of cheesy special effects or computer-generated animations, the African-American woman's dark skin took on a pallid complexion, drained of blood, her body shaking as if suddenly made of gelatin, her mouth opening wider as the scream escaping from her took on the menace of a factory whistle sounding the alarm. Momentarily shocked, I found my eyes unable to tear themselves away from hers, though I sensed whatever I was doing here was not enough to save her, whether I could change history or not.

Most of all, what focus I could maintain, after shifting to the man in the center of the room, became glued to the bright, flashing object held in his right hand, making its broad arc outwards as he turned and, in his surprise, threw his arms wide, about to spring like some ancient ninja warrior. He stood closer than the woman, little more than arms' length, but for some reason I saw little of his face, a thin, pale mask with a distorted mouth, black against his pale skin.

Was it, in fact, a mask – one of those fashioned after Munch's painting, “The Scream” – and had I, I wondered, dropped unannounced onto a set in the midst of filming some low-budget slasher film? Had I heard someone shout “Cut!” or had I merely become aware the man was holding a long, thin, curving blade?

The only sound I could hear now, not quite buried among the screams and breaking glass, was the long, pronounced hiss of the man's flying blade – a scythe? a sickle? – slicing through the air as he spun his wiry body, covered in a long black trench coat, and pounced with deft precision in my direction. It was my turn to scream: I opened my mouth and bellowed for all I was worth, forgetting I was an old man with limited lung power, adding to this dissonant, nondescript three-part harmony.

And then I saw the bright red arc, dark, fluid, sparkling like jewels in the fading lightening flash of my arrival, bursting from the wound tearing open as it raced across the woman's throat. Her scream reached deeper into her range, knocking her against the desk before she folded into a heap toward the floor.

Before I realized, there was blood everywhere, falling in great thudding drops like heavy rain in the midst of a hurricane, spattering against the desk, the floor, the wall and possibly even the ceiling, not that I wanted to distract myself by tearing my eyes away from the man lunging closer toward me.

“Holy crap!”

The blade's handle was definitely short, a sickle (not a scythe!) as if that distinction were important now, but what demented maniac would carry around a sickle when he went breaking into somebody's office?

All this was immediately interrupted by yet another flash – there was no other word to describe it; I tried thinking of something else except my mind's thesaurus came up “access denied” and remained unavailable – not nearly as bright as the one I'd experienced when I arrived here only seconds earlier, more like half the luminosity. Perhaps the difference was because I had been at the center of that one and this was... well, something else, apparently. No doubt there's a logical explanation for this, but save that for later.

This slightly lesser flash opened up what I could only call a small “hole in the air” just to my right and out of this hole protruded the Kapellmeister who, this time, I was decidedly more glad to see than usual. Or I should say, to be more accurate, the upper part of the Kapellmeister.

He seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see even part of him though I suspect some portion of the surprise I saw registered on his face concerned my present location. Meanwhile, the large-framed woman fell across the floor, her hand to her throat, all sound and life draining from her scream. My traveling companion lunged through this hole in the fabric of time before he would land fully in the same location, his hands latching onto my shoulder with fragments of a second to spare.

I saw the woman's increasingly lifeless body stretching across the rug as blood seeped out from the gash at her throat – “that's gonna stain” – the killer tripping over her arm as it flopped forward. The look of fear on the killer's face was instantly replaced by panic as he realized he had lost his balance. Tumbling toward us as the Kapellmeister – in the proverbial “nick of time” – managed to yank me away, the killer's blade swept wide and in the process slashed the Kapellmeister's sleeve (“nick of time,” indeed).

There was, as much as I wanted to make my escape fully intact, one last thing I inadvertently became aware of, looking across the carnage that had occurred in a matter of only seconds: there, in a corner by a large table was the same dollhouse I'd seen moments ago in Charles Ives' living room.

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Friday, November 30th]

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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