Christmas Music

 

1. The Night Before

On Christmas Eve we drove down from our home by the ocean through the rain forest of eastern Connecticut, watching the sky turn to moist, violet hues as we pushed into the ambient light pollution of denser realms. Human settlements: cars and houses and shopping centers. The rain passed, we were home free, or so we thought, but somebody had reorganized the highway since our last visit and we found ourselves staring the Tappan Zee Bridge in the ominous face (“Tahpp!tap!tap-ennn-zzze bridge! De tap-tapenzee-tapenzee brih-udge!”) before choosing the desperate extremity of “last exit.” Last exit deposited us into a bedroom community where Santa tiptoed on cat paws, but no one either of us knew had ever ventured. “Duxley,” I marveled. “Ever hear of Duxley?”

It was a magical place. It had mansions concealed behind big wrought iron fences where old Dutch planters lingered in great halls, coaxing visions of sugarplum faeries from their meerschaum pipes. My wife was driving.

“Which way now?” she demanded.

“Right,” I said, nobly assuming my take-charge persona.

We took a right and then another right, passing through shiny black streets between picturesque brick buildings wherein elegant homesteaders kept to themselves. No one on the streets; lighted fir trees glowing conically from the tiny town triangles; occasional non-conformists blowing off the town zoning code by lighting up their lives in full spectrum displays which revealed more wattage than taste, but were nevertheless oddly comforting.

“At least they’re not all rich buggers around here,” she said.

“Burghers,” I corrected.

She sighed and said she knew I was hungry but could I please try to keep my mind off food?

We passed a sign saying we were entering another town we had never heard of – Neering? was this really the outskirts of the metropolis? – but magic was abroad that night (or else we just lucky and nobody else was on the road), it was Christmas Eve, and I knew it would be all right because we were heading south.

“That’s your road,” I said. “Turn left.”

“That?”

I had to admit it didn’t look like much. It looked like somebody had tried to connect two things that shared a name but did not want to have anything to do with each other, like Murray Amsterdam and Old New York. One went along a narrow river, over some rickety bridges, skirting ancient stoplights and abandoned mills, and somehow landed in a major city. That was the road we wanted. The other dribbled along through make-believe bedroom suburbias where people who ought to know better kept believing that Santa was just around the corner, like the Republican faith in supply side economics, and I suppose it was better than not believing in anything. That was the road we were on.

I told her to turn left where the pavement looked too narrow and she did, and we traveled between hammer and anvil, passing under a drawbridge that carried lost souls to another century, and found ourselves with a “yield” sign and a too-short approach to the road we had always wanted before the Tap-tap-tappan Zee Bridge stared us down.

She is driving because I cannot stand the traffic, or even the possibility of finding myself trapped in traffic, in the greater metropolitan area. I have confessed this to a psychiatrist.

“Don’t yield,” I advised, “keep going,” thinking never, never yield; and one road led to another, and one thing led to another. And our river became a sea.

Sharon’s parents stand at the door. They say we’ve made good time.

2. Christmas at the Gershams

“We came up with a double play,” said Grace, Sharon’s mother, not on Christmas Day actually, but a couple of days later. “The botanical gardens in the morning. Then we can come back and have lunch and then go to the Met in the afternoon.” She hesitated just a second. “Because it’s open late today.”

Not “double play,” I corrected. A double play gets two outs at once and, if you are the team at bat, it is a bad thing. Double-header? Linguistic analysis doesn’t get you very far with the Gershams.

Open late? I thought, registering the second part of this announcement. An ecumenical indulgence: all things were now possible.

“The only problem is that there isn’t any morning,” Sharon pointed out.

We have got the day off to our usual unhurried start, gathering around the breakfast table at around eleven to stare at the Times, make coffee and debate waking our son.

“Morning is almost over,” Sharon observed, rightly.

“That’s all right. The museum is open very late.”

The Gershams are tolerant of Christmas, though Sharon, in her core values, hates it. Unlike politicians, Sharon has no problem finding her core values: she hates the rush, the hype, the commercialism, the fact that no one is at their desk or can be expected to accomplish anything for a month, and that all important decisions must be put off until “after the holidays.” What “holidays?” she demands. We are not talking Ramadan, witches’ solstice, kookie Kwanzaa or heaven forbid, Hannukah (which even Jews cannot agree on how to spell). We are talking Christmas.

She hates the December Dilemma. We have solved the so-called, over-hyped bi-religious dilemma by putting the Hannukah candles in one room and the sacrificial tree, symbolical axis mundi of the pagan solstice festival, in the other room. The kids get twice as many presents. We eat latkes on the first night of Hannukah, seasoned with a little blood via hand-grating the potatoes. We exchange Christmas presents some evening, or morning (never on Dec. 25), when it’s convenient, given our traveling schedule. We travel to nostalgic New York to spend the day of days with my parents in the house where I grew up and seem unable to get away from, at least far enough to have an excuse not to go there for Christmas. Then we drive to the Bronx, to see Sharon’s parents and watch a video treatment of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” which is exempted from Sharon’s core values because it goes beyond charming and warm-and-wonderful nostalgic to non-denominationally entertaining.

It is part of the cycle of life, one of the eternal verities. New York for the holidays.

Unfortunately everyone else is there too. Another of the verities is that you do not go to a prominent cultural institution or famous New York tourist site during the Christmas week. There you are, a kid in a candy store: the Met, MOMA, the Museum of Natural History, Rockefeller center at your feet, which get tired at the thought of these places, but you cannot go to any of these signature Manhattan institutions because they are mobbed. Or they have been closed to the public for shooting Woody Allen films.
But today, though it is only two days after Christmas, and a Saturday to boot, Sharon’s mother proposes we go the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though only after going to the botanical gardens first to see the model train village, decorated with the natural products of the abundant botanical outdoors, which has been erected in honor of – the holidays? Christmas. When we arrive there, early for us (but no longer morning), cars are being directed to park on a nearby college campus. After a healthy hike around the outdoor gardens in the unseasonably balmy weather, Sharon’s parents nearly expire on the confused trek to the cafeteria situated on the far side of some child-mobbed attractions. We never see the ballyhooed model train village; and on our way out, the line to enter the conservatory building where one may see the ballyhooed model train village is so long that Sharon has to be forcibly restrained from warning late-arriving victims, mostly model nuclear families with holiday-coddled children, they will die of starvation before getting inside.

I patiently explain this is nature’s way of culling the population.

“Don’t interfere,” I say. “It’s natural selection.”

Sharon’s parents have sufficiently recovered from their near-death experience while searching for a nice cup of tea and a soft roll to insist on driving us downtown to the museum. Which we should keep in mind has a famous Christmas tree in the lobby. Her father, Max, drives, a thing I do not volunteer to do. So far I have neglected to explain that Grace is a devoted volunteer at this august New York institution and has succeeded in convincing us that the Met – with its broad Fifth Avenue stone stairway meeting place and Central Park for its backyard – is the true spiritual center of New York City. Forget the shopping and the tree in Rockefeller Center, the tall buildings and the Disneyfied Times Square – though she would like to take us to all those places too. The museum is the sacred place. And after volunteering all these years, it’s not just cultural homage, she actually knows the schedule – it really is open late, I am pleasantly surprised to discover, which is good because the sun is setting by the time we get there.

Because our tolerant, open-minded college student son is with us, we trek upstairs, leaving the Greeks, the Egyptians and even the Impressionists in our dust, to visit the worst art in the place, or possibly in many places – contemporary, abstract, mid-century. Jackson Pollack seems to me richly composed and painstaking executed compared to the gaudy-line-of-color-on-otherwise-blank-canvass school that fills this collection. The twentieth may have been my century, but this is not my art.

Being who we are, we once again hone in on the cafeteria (practically deserted compared to the trampled botanical gardens) and feast on red meat in the early winter darkness. Leaving for home when the guards start showing us the door – “it’s not that late,” Grace protests – the Christmas week traffic parts on the way home like the Red Sea and we drive underneath the vaulting, brightly lit transportation cathedral of the George Washington Bridge. (“George-George-Washington Bridge! The George-Washington-Washington Bridge!”)

The house is quiet, seasonal, and reasonably overheated when we arrive. We open a window, because it is late December. My son takes a telephone and disappears. We pick and choose among Grace’s collection of favorite “holiday” videos, an expansive category that includes “Candide” and “The Mikado” because we always watch them this time of year. .

I meditate on Christmases past and the other branch of the journey.

3. The Day of Days

My father got an LL Bean flannel shirt every Christmas. He unwrapped the gift box slowly, with inordinate care, as if to preserve the paper for reuse, though Mom was sure to tumble it into a black plastic garbage bag as soon as we had finished. Sometimes before we were finished. At last Dad would get down to the box itself, and if he were lucky, and things fell out the way he wanted, no one would be watching when he opened to gaze upon the treasure within. Then he would not have to react – “very nice, dear” – to the less than monumental experience of discovering his Christmas shirt. Was it blue this year? Or some kind of plaid? Instead of reacting (“very nice, dear”), he could carefully replace the box cover and at some well-chosen moment softly murmur “Thank you, dear, very nice” in the direction of my mother. Who of course would not hear a word of it, on account of being hard of hearing, or even if she did hear, would likely fail to associate these few murmured words in response to her present: the new, soft, warm winter shirt, since so many minutes had gone by since it had been deposited in his lap by the youngest person in the family that particular Christmas late morning. Then, realizing something had happened, perhaps not what she thought had intended, she would deliver up her confusion by way of expostulation – “Yes, that’s right! Your present,Al! Now I see!” – and so in the end my father would be compelled to thank his wife once more for the gift she had given him (“very nice…”) and which he had so painstakingly unwrapped, and thereby attract to himself precisely the general attention he had sought to avoid.

“Well Dad,” my sister, the baby of the family, would ask, “what do you think of your shirt?”

Some Christmases, if he were feeling well, he would venture a little bit beyond the correct, minimalist response; saying, perhaps, “I will wear it to Jim’s house later.” Then, if no one had said anything or if there were no grandchild in the house to override the silence, he might add the humorously intended, though slightly labored observation “I can always use something warm over there” – a reference to the widespread tendency of the old to feel cold in the homes of their energy-saving children.

And now that I have done what is right and proper, Dad seemed to say, now that I have played my part, surely I may be excused from the hurly-burly of Christmas morning at the Smallwoods’, Christmas at 45 Mere Street, and return to that solitary pursuit of happiness that went by the name of “relaxing.” The term deconstructed from too much use. Didn’t one, one wondered, have to “relax” from or after something? Muscles relaxed from contraction. From what internal contractions Dad relaxed we will never know. “He took his secrets with him,” Sharon said.

Truth is, Christmas at the Smallwoods had gone downhill in the last few years. A few poor, pro-forma decorative touches. My father skipping meals to lair up in the backroom, looking like the wolfman. My mother nearly forgetting the helpless faded ritual of the present exchange.

How could you tell Christmas from any other day?

Every Christmas my father got a new flannel LL Bean shirt. I know – by touch, by warmth, by the cigarette burn-hole just below the collar. I own his shirt collection now.

4. Five Gold Rings

We are breaking the string this year, like an old garland of popcorn and cranberries strung by needle on a doubled thread. Actually, doubled threads are hard to break. But we are not going to my parents’ house this Christmas, because they don’t live there any more. Dad of course doesn’t live anywhere, except in my shirts.

My mother moved to the Heartland House after he died, and her house was sold just this month. I drove by on Christmas morning, taking a broad, ceremonial, largely unnecessary sweep through Nassau County just to pass through the old neighborhood. No Midnight Mass this year. No need to pack church-going dress-up clothes in the garment bag. No slightly embarrassing Christmas Eve drop-in at my mother’s old church, which has acquired a Caribbean persona: black faces, bright hats, sweet singing all in the choir. Even a Caribbean Episcopal minister in the last few years, his slow, serious demeanor matched by a bracing social awareness. If he misses my mother this year – he had visited her at home, after all, bringing the body of Christ (a phrase that has a Hitchcockian ring) – he will probably assume she has died. No, just went to heaven at the Hartland House.

Someone else is living at 45 Mere Street, and I hope they’ve moved in for their first Christmas. I see myself pulling off the familiar highway exit on the Christmas morning sweep from the Gershams’ townhouse in the Bronx out to Mom’s new place; just dropping the reigns and letting the car nose its way home to the old, overcrowded garage. “Who you folks?” we’d say. “The Johnsons? Just wanted to take a peak at the old place, see what kind of shape it’s in. Make sure you folks are taking care of it.”

“Taking care of it? We’ve only been here a month!… Listen, stranger, things have changed around these parts, and you better get used to it.”

Yeah, get used to it. But it feels funny, doesn’t it, waking up somewhere else on Christmas morning, after all these years? I resist the temptation, though the car starts to pull toward the exit under the weight of habit, and continue on the familiar Southern Parkway route out East, as we islanders (Long, that is) say, to my mother’s new digs.

The sun is shining; it’s too warm for Christmas. We find Mom working on carol-sing preparation on the shiny black piano in the lounge of the spanking new, quality-controlled Hartland House, where old ladies with nice pensions nearly go to heaven. Not just ladies; there are at least two men in the place, and so my brother has taken the sensible precaution of securing power of attorney over Mom’s assets.

It is good to see Mom playing the piano, plugging away by memory, which in some respects is not so hot, especially given the long-term decline of her hearing and the recent precipitous deterioration of her sight. We are depending on her to play for the family carol sing, which has come to represent the single, remaining old-gang family moment of Christmas-tide. We do not pin up our stockings. Mom and Dad got rid of the tree, the mess and bother of the real tree years ago, decades ago, dad got too weak to decorate, Mom devoted her attention to patrolling the carpet for crumbs with myopic certitude, the turkey feast got transferred whole hog to my brother’s house (along with the bubble-lights from 1957), Mom gave up shopping, my own kids grew up beyond the ga-ga-eye stage on Christmas morning, which they never really were since we exchanged presents on any day but December 25. Finally, Sharon and I gave up shopping, so that the names on my Christmas list have lately had to be satisfied by knowing they have virtuously donated some useful fragment of a domestic animal to a chosen quarter of the Third World via the Heifer Project. Dad got his LL Bean shirt. At this rate we’ll be banging on the doors of McDonald’s in a year or two.

But at least we can still sing “Jingle Bells” together so long as some of Mom’s parts work well enough to find the keys. And then the apex of family togetherness: “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

We have bundled Mom over to my brother’s, the master of the hall, he and Helene have fed the lot of us, we have forgotten to exchange presents (checks for their kids; animal parts for Tim and Helene), and cousin Calvin, the stand-up Pavarotti of the old family crowd, is giving out parts. “You’re number one.” He points: first victim. “You’re two. Three. Four. You’re five –.”

“I’ll be five,” my son, the ordinarily agreeable to a fault, soft-spoken Marshall, home for his first college-break Christmas, interrupts.

The pause. The stare. “All right, if somebody’s going to interrupt and confuse everything, I’ll have to start all over. You’re one.” Points: Brenda, our twelve-year-old niece, possessor of a brand-new laptop (whatever happened to old-fashioned preteen presents like VCR’s and Nintendo?), lured away from the screen for a warm family moment by an escalating series of parental threats. “You’re two”: at Marshall.

“No, I’ll be five.”

Five, I thought: five gold rings. Why did he want them?

The stare. The pause. “Okay, I want everybody to pay attention one more time. This is the toughest crowd to get in line.” Numbers; points. “You’re one, you’re two. Three. Four.” He whirls and points to soft-spoken Marshall: “You’re five.”

“Sure.”

When everyone has their number, Mom hits the keys, beginning with an elaborate instrumental introduction which confuses everyone so none of the singers know when to begin. We start over. Number one Brenda, smoked out into adolescent self-consciousness, whispers through the first day. “On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me–” Brenda’s mother Helene, the most organized homemaker in Suffolk County, freezes: “—I don’t know what.”

Group laugh.

“I want everyone paying attention this time,” Calvin pronounces. “Got that Helene? You listening?”

“Two turtle doves!”

“Not now! Not now! Wait till your number comes.”

“I’m just showing you I know it.”

“Does everybody know their number?” Assents. “Diane!” That’s my mother. “Diane!” Mom hits the intro. “Skip the intro!”
We sing. Everyone knows their number. Everyone sings, Brenda so inaudibly that my mother pipes up in her fine ancient soprano, as if clueing the singer, everyone else perfectly tuneless. “Fie—ive go—old ringgggs,” Marshall offers, with perfectly respectable timing, but no special flourishes. When we get to seven swans a-swimming I make exaggerated breast-stroke motions, having played this number before. I remain the only performance artist. No lords leap. No ladies dance uninhibitedly across the floor. No hen lays an egg. But we build satisfactorily through the days, clapping and cheering each other at the end.

“Through the years,” Calvin croons, when the others have left the piano, “we all will be together, if the fates allow…”

Later I ask Marshall why he wanted the five gold rings. “It was grandpa’s number,” he told me. Yes, once, I remember, years ago, my father had sung the “Twelve Days” with us on Christmas Day. I had forgotten that – a homage, then. Once upon a time Dad had clapped his hands together and howled when my mother played “Deep in the heart of Texas!” at a company sing. It is hard to remember a time when he had that much energy.

Marshall and I go downstairs to play a lengthy set of Ping-Pong. He beats the crap out of me.

5. I Can Hardly Wait

Somehow the holiday, the day of days, the seasonal mood, the generalized promise of peace and benediction for all, still meant something for me. It was hard to explain even to myself – what did one wait for? look forward to? look back on? – but as the years went on (and I went with them, whitening my beard in the winter frosts), I turned increasingly to my own private musical celebration of the season, playing the same recordings year after year. I have frankly elitist tastes in music. I have classy, not to say classical recordings, elegant renditions – the kind of music I suspect you would hear inside the great halls of toney bedroom communities like Duxley if the owners would throw open the doors and let you peek inside, arriving like anachronistic wassailers motoring from highway exit to exit (but they won’t; they’re private). Not the same old drearily familiar songs in their predictable department store arrangements. But my songs, my music, and the quiet moments I spend listening to them have come to constitute my private celebration of the season.

It is hard to put a name on the emotion, the feelings these songs give rise to, yet I know it at once. Take a quiet instrumental, for instance “Of the father’s love begotten,” but it could be any number of others. The mood is slow, sad, even somber, as good music often is, but not deflating. I lean into the sadness and rise above any sort of heaviness or depression. I grow melancholy, perhaps, in the old poetic, paradoxical sense: a pleasant melancholy. And how can I account for the peculiar warmth aroused by such music? A palpably familiar emotion associated with nostalgia and childhood – undoubtedly; but how, exactly? I cannot avoid connecting the season’s sentimental journey with some no longer precisely remembered “warm and wonderful” Christmas back at 45 Mere Street. But when? What did it consist of? What are the particulars?

Alas, just when I am at the point of uncovering the secrets of that warm and wonderful childhood, “Of the father’s love begotten” (or something just as good) concludes and I am left stranded, with no ship of dreams to take me home. To sustain the mood, I must get up and start the recording over again. It is like kicking the choirmaster or goading the minister with a hairpin to get the service going again. The recording begins with an instrumental version of a traditional English carol, very Victorian and un-department store-like; then comes another instrumental, a classical melody. It takes a moment to place it – ah, Bach. This is far from the music of 45 Mere Street; so why does it stimulate original emotions? This is the music of the ocean kingdom where I have spent my middle years presiding like Prospero over the magical childhood I have imagined for my own offspring. So I am making up for myself a sentimental adulthood? A warm and wonderful private world. My own back room? My relaxation?

A love-tense female voice tears through the deep wood of my pleasant melancholy, taking me off guard as she does each year. “I have not forgotten,” she sings – begs – prophesies, that little Christmas yet…” But I have, in the absence of such reminders, nearly all of it: desire, romance, jealousy, youth, anticipation, soul-splitting disappointment… until the straining woman’s voice brings it back. Time will come and go, seasons lengthen and diminish. Time will fly, disappear, flee like the titmouse from the feeder, the paper-thin bones of memory snapped in the scythe of the falcon’s beak. I will not remember one thing that happened in this life, but I will remember that – I will still feel that.

Longing is better than having, it keeps hope alive. When we play old music, we bring back old longings. We hope, we anticipate. We dream. Our Christmas is a dream of Christmas.

So also – though now we have advanced to some calmer, more whimsical track – dreams the man with department store dreams. He goes home to abominable schlock-happy Christmas-whitey albums. Which presumably do for their listeners what mine do for me. This is sacred time.

Remember, something tells me, shouting in the wind, though I know I will fail.

6. All the World Should be Taxed

Marshall’s college chorus performed “In the Bleak Midwinter” along with the main event Vivaldi “Gloria” for its gala holiday concert, which given his college’s schedule, took place some time in November.

The day after Christmas he sits down at the shiny piano in the lobby of the Hartland House, noodling, while we wait to go to Boxing Day luncheon. His grandmother is upstairs, remembering or forgetting various pieces of outerwear. We have stayed over – not at 45 Mere; Grandma doesn’t live there any more – but at my brother’s in order to arrange this outing. I keep trying to build in an exercise quotient. First, we’ll go walk around the lake. Or, we’ll go to the town where the restaurant is and walk around there first. In the end, Sharon and I walk the empty sidewalks of Smithtown while Mom declines the exercise quotient for a variety of delicately balanced factors. Going outdoors will be enough exercise.

Waiting, Marshall rifles the pages of my mother’s sheet music, finds the score for “Bleak Midwinter” and lets out a little whoop of pleasure. “I know this one,” he says. Me too. I’ve sung it in the Midnight Masses at my mother’s church, “…in the bleak midwinter/ many years ago.”

Canonized in a literary sense, Christina Rosetti peers through the eye-holes of her pre-Raphaelite mask and seduces us with conventional topos and cow-piss sentimentality: the pan-mammalian nativity dream we learned in Sunday school, before going home to our Sunday roast.

“Heaven can not hold him/,” we sing: “Or the earth sustain/ Heaven and earth shall welcome him/ When he comes to reign.”

Singing, I embrace the orthodox sentimentality of Rosetti’s lines, even though her story/song is really just the little bummer boy, rumpa-dumb-dumb, with fine writing. It’s Amahl and the night-kitsch visitors. Amahl! Wottsmatta’ yew! What are all those people doing in the garage?

In Rosetti’s synthesis of New Testament gospel and Northern European climate – no bleak-midwinter, after all, in the Roman province of Palestine – various worshipers have come to bring their gifts to the baby Jesus, having somehow figured out – whether simple shepherd or Wisemen of Asia – that this is the real deal. Against this miraculous backdrop, the “Bleak Midwinter” singer worries the old conundrum of the poor man’s gift:

“What then shall I give him, poor as I am/ If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb/. If I were a wise man, I would do my part./ What I can I give him/ I will give my heart.”

The wisemen were magi, I think, murmuring the reverential lyrics while Marshall picks out the tune, sorcerers and astrologers and Zoroastrians. It was a crazy sort of monotheism. It sent them hot-footing across the desert, following the signs. I wonder which religion, cults, or legend the gospels (or at least one of them) got this bit from. It makes question whether Christ is a Capricorn or Sagittarius.

7. Twelve Days of Christmas

We are packing for home. It’s hard to imagine things having gone much better. The sun is shining again. I am not insomniac or flu-ridden. The Gershams have hosted and shepherded us, Max got us in and out of Manhattan without difficulty, Grace got to show off her beloved museum, and at the end of a long day no one is snapping at anyone. We have traveled miles and miles through metro-country without getting lost – except for the time they threw us off the road in Duxley. Since then we have trotted back and forth across the dense shopping country of Long Island and intervening boroughs to go from the Bronx to Smithtown and back again, pausing each time to endure the horrible traffic on the Southern Parkway near my folks’ old house – a stubborn, pointless homage to the old homestead I can’t seem to avoid. It was a cruel irony that Dad, no fan of automotive transportation in his latter days, found himself living next to one of the worst permanent traffic jams in the metropolitan area. He must be rolling over to see me seek it out. Traffic slowed but did not defeat us on the western transit back to the Gershams while a spectacularly frigid pink and orange sunset gilded the flatlands of western Suffolk County in one of the greatest religious displays I have ever experienced in holiday or any other time on that ordinarily unappealing slab of glacial outwash.

Arriving after dark in Riverdale, we made a rushed sortie on a Westchester County movie theater. I plunged into shopping center parking-grab maneuvers best left unremembered, climaxing in an expletive which drew from my wife one of her memorable recourses to basic values:

“Don’t say fuck in front of my father.”

“Sorry dear.”

Equanimity restored, one thing leads to another, and now it is the good morrow. The car is packed, the sun is shining. We have been gifted with a new CD from my sister and her husband, a kind of contemporary sacred music composition – real voices, real string section, but also real synthesizer – and I am looking forward to popping it in for the ride home. Christmas does not end on the arbitrary date chosen by the major western religions for the feast of the nativity. At the very least, by the old folkways, you get twelve days. None of this clean up your loot and throw the tree out on the curb, with a few pathetic strands of tinsel waving forlornly above the dog doo. Oh no, I will play the old songs once more, alone at night in the mid-winter silence. The music does not stop because a page has been torn from the calendar.

I pop the new recording into the machine, uplifted by these wholesome seasonal meditations, and begin backing the car out of the in-laws’ underground garage in my patented one-finger style when a loud, sick, cracking sound announces a premature end to my revels. It’s the sound of a fender hitting a cement post, a slap upside the head from concrete reality.

I know in my heart I deserve it.

8. “Walking in the Air”

Darkness falls early, but a little later this month than last. The holidays are over. The solstice has been survived and the sun appears to be cycling back as scheduled. We have lit beseeching candles. We have burned our trees in rubbish piles. We used to burn our dead in what the pagans called balefires. I am not supposed to be listening to this music any more – I have gift CDs from Christmas (Tchaikovsky, Puccini) I haven’t even opened yet –

But I am. George Winston’s subtle fingers have found their way into my evenings, and will not let go.

Now there is a slow assembly of piano keys. Single notes, one after another. Even when they are over, and their vibrations are over, they hang in the air. How does that happen? How does the connection between one note, one heard interval, maintain itself – where? in the mind? – while the next comes into existence. Rings, struck, vibrates; hangs in the air, the ether, the dimensionless instant when perception takes place; then it too passes and yet remains behind, alive as well as past; a long string of such moments; a growing string, quickening – ding! ding! ding! A bell-like string of hammer-struck strings lives in the place where sound goes (the mind?) and communicates its sense to the place where mind feels (the heart?). Hands, fingers, ears, mind, heart. They dance, they walk, they endure – in air.

After a certain age – fifty, say – everything is gravy. How long are you supposed to go on walking through time, stuffed as you are in a decaying container of hurt-able, hurting flesh? Someday you will leave it behind.

And then you will be – as I am – as angels are – as music is – walking in the air.

 

Robert Knox is the author of Suosso’s Lane, a novel based on the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case, a contributing editor for the poetry journal Verse-Virtual, and a correspondent for the Boston Globe. His stories have been published by Words With Jam, The Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, Duende, and New Readers Magazine, among other journals, and he has published two poetry chapbooks. His novel Karpa Talesman was recently chosen as the winner of a competition for a novel of speculative fiction and will be published by Hidden River Arts.

 

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