|notícias||olhos e visão||textos didácticos||cegueira e literatura||cinema e cegueira||arte e cegueira||legislação||contactos|
1. Harbor Songs
My first memory of hearing comes from the Baltic. I remember my father holding my hand as we walked to the end of a jetty in Helsinki, Finland. Although it was late in March, Finland was still bitterly cold and the harbor was dotted with ice.
My form of blindness allowed me to see colors and torn geometries. Shards of ice drifted past us and my father told me they looked like continents. “There’s Australia,” he said. “There’s Hawaii.” But when I looked out I saw no distinction between sky and ice. I saw only endless plains of gray Baltic light. This didn’t bother me. It was the world I knew. It was a world of shadowy loves. If a person appeared before me he or she resembled nothing more than the black trunk of a tree.
We turned back and walked toward shore. A troupe of women emerged from the mist. They were indistinct, liquid, black and green. These were the old women from the neighborhood unfurling their carpets on the shore of the frozen sea.
Lordy! Then they sang!
The tree women sang and beat their carpets in the Baltic wind.
My father told me to listen.
“These are the old songs,” he said.
The women croaked, chanted, breathed, and wept.
The women were forest people. They had survived starvation, civil war, and then another war, the “Winter War” with the Russians.
Their carpets swayed on wooden racks that stood along the shore. They sang and beat dust from the rugs with sticks.
They sang over and over a song of night. The song unwound from a spool. I remember its terrible darkness. They were together singing a song that rose from a place deeper than dreams. Even a boy knows what this is.
From 1958 to 1960 my parents and I lived in the south harbor of Helsinki, just a short walk from the open-air market where fish peddlers and butchers had their stalls. We walked across the cobbled square and I’d tilt my head in the gray light and listen to the gulls and ravens. The gulls sounded like mewing cats and the ravens sounded like hinges in need of oil. I walked about listening to the polyphony of hungry birds.
The Russian Orthodox Church had mysterious chimes.
And winter wouldn’t give up. We traveled into the country and I heard the reindeer bells. At an old farm I heard the runners of a sleigh crossing ice. What else?
The woman who sold flowers outside the railway station sang just for me. And her little daughter played a wooden recorder . . .
Wind poured into the city through the masts of sailboats.
There was an old man who sold potatoes from a dory in the harbor. His voice was like sand. He talked to me every day.
Potatoes from the earth, potatoes from the cellar! You can still taste the summer! You can still taste the summer!
Later I would think of his voice when reading of trolls under bridges.
Sound of knife blades in the tinsmith’s stall . . .
The rumble of streetcars . . .
The clacking of a loom . . . My mother weaving a rug . . .
The sound of my father’s typing late in the night . . .
Sound of a wooden top that whistled like a teakettle . . . my first toy . . .
A winter tree tapping at the window . . .
My father was a visiting professor at the University of Helsinki and he had time to walk with me and introduce me to the chance music of the city.
One day he took me to the house of a glassblower. This was my first experience of synesthesia: the strange suffusion of one sense with another . . . The glassblower took his long-stemmed pipe out of the flames. I could barely make out the red halo of the fire. The glassblower explained how he pushed his breath into the molten glass and then I heard him inhale. As he leaned into his art there was a spirited cry from a cuckoo clock on the far wall. Delicacy and irreverence have been forever linked in my mind from that very moment.
On the way home we rode the tram and I listened to the wintry talk of the passengers. I loved the sound of Finnish, especially the oddly whispered Finnish of strangers sitting side by side on the tram. The Finns inhale as they speak, a lovely sotto voce confirmation that two minds are in solemn agreement. One could hear whispers and inhalations as twilight covered the city. I talked to the empty seat beside me and spoke Finnish to an imaginary friend whom I named Matti. I held my breath and listened to the rocking of the tram. I exhaled and spoke in a flurry to my little doppelgänger. My father was lost in his newspaper. I was lost on the heart’s road of whispered confidences.
The entire world was green or white. Blindness for me was veil after veil of forest colors. But what a thrill it was to be a sightless child in a city of sounds.
Our apartment was in the south harbor. My mother wove a carpet and listened to the radio. She said that the Russian navy was coming, that it had just been announced. And then we heard the booming of the guns from beyond the archipelago of islands in the Baltic. The Soviet navy was conducting war games and we stood on our balcony and listened to the guns of the destroyers. A neighbor woman told us this was the sound that made her hair turn white. I worried for days that we would all have white hair. I asked my parents all kinds of questions about growing old. Why did the Russians want to make people old? I put such great faith in sound: sound was this tree and that grass; this man; this dimension of light and shade. Meanwhile the evening wind arrived and the Russian navy went away.
April turned to May and the park spun itself into green smoke; leaves filled the trees again; and an old man played his accordion in a grove of birches. A little girl whose name I can no longer recall taught me to waltz. I’m sure that her parents must have told her I was blind. She must have been around eight years old. She swayed me back and forth in the light of the birches. The old man played slowly and I felt something of the Zen-body: wherever I was I was there. By the age of four I’d found the intricacies of listening were inexhaustible.
In 1960 we flew home to the United States. I loved the groan and rumble of the plane’s propellers. What a fabulous sound they made! I rested my head against the cabin wall and felt the vibration rattle through my bones. I hummed and let the engines push my own little song. I imitated the Kalevala cadences and sorrows of the Finnish carpet ladies and groaned in unison with the straining metal of the airplane.
DURHAM, NEW HAMPSHIRE, 1960
Maybe it was a Saturday. I remember that my parents were still sleeping. I had a plan and dressed quietly. When I was certain that no one was awake I slipped from the house. I loved to walk in the woods and follow the beams of light or depths of shade that fell between trees. I remember that on this particular day I got lost while chasing light and found myself standing in front of the university’s horse barn. I knew that somewhere in the cool space before me a horse was breathing. I stood in the door and listened to him breathe. He sounded like water going down a drain. Then I took one step forward into a pyramid of fragrances.
What a thing! To be a young boy smelling hay and leather and turds!
From his place in the dark the horse gurgled like water in the back of a boat.
Mice scurried like beaded curtains disturbed by a hand.
I stood in that magical nowhere and listened to a full range of barn sounds.
I was a blind child approaching a horse!
Behind me a cat mewed.
Who would guess that horses sometimes hold their breath?
The horse was eyeing me from his corner.
Then two cats were talking.
Wind pushed forcefully at the high roof.
Somewhere up high a timber groaned.
My horse was still holding his breath.
When would he breathe again?
Come on boy!
Breathe for me!
Where are you?
I heard him rub his flank against a wall.
Then I heard him breathe again with a great deflation!
He sounded like a fat balloon venting in swift circles.
And then I imitated him with my arm pressed to my mouth.
I made great, flatulent noises by pressing my lips to my forearm.
How do you like that, horse?
I noticed the ringing of silence. An insect traveled between our bursts of forced air.
Sunlight warmed my face. I was standing in a wide sunbeam.
I was in the luminous whereabouts of horse! I was a very small boy and I had wandered about a mile from home. Although I could see colors and shapes in sunlight, in the barn I was completely blind.
But I had made up my mind to touch a horse.
Judging by his breathing, his slow release of air, that sound of a concertina, judging by this I was nearly beside him. And so I reached out and there was the great wet fruit of his nose, the velvet bone of his enormous face. And we stood there together for a little while, all alive and all alone.
At night when I couldn’t sleep I thought of this horse. I thought of his glory—his fat sound. I thought of how he pinched the air around him with his breathing. The house and the trees swayed in the night wind. The horse was dry wood talking. He was all nerves and nostrils. He tightened and then unwound like a clock. He groaned like the Finnish women who stood beside the ocean waving their sticks. Strophe and antistrophe. Step. Rhythm. Pulse beat. I’d crossed a threshold, hearing and walking the uncertain space that opened before me . . .
By seven I was old enough to get the picture. Disability left me with time on my hands. It would be another thirty years before physical education for disabled kids would become widespread. Sometimes from the edge of the field I listened to the neighbor’s children playing softball, but without description this was a marginal entertainment.
I walked in the woods, trying to locate the flower known as the lady’s slipper—a violet-going-to-rose-colored orchid. Seeing only colors, I spent hours searching for this prize.
There were paths beside a creek descending into stands of bullrushes.
A catbird appeared in the trees above me and I talked back to him.
I knew the birds from a radio program. I’d wake early on Sundays and listen to a solemn old man guiding listeners through the calls of New Hampshire’s birds. The purple finch sounded more contented than any creature I knew of. He sounded like the world’s fastest wind chimes. The old man and the purple finch gave me my first lesson in timbre. “Sounds,” he said, “even bird sounds, have character. A nagging blue jay makes flat notes. Birds in love are very round.” The finch’s notes were round and quick as pins dropping on a glass table. Alone in the woods, I could spend a whole hour listening to a single bird. I had a bed of moss where I’d lie for the concert. The moss smelled like bread. My hands were sticky with pine pitch. I lay there a long time.
My early childhood occurred in the last moments of unmediated listening. The transistor radio was too new for wide distribution. The television was an evening device and largely controlled by adults. One simply walked in the ambient and stratified air of the birds.
Blackbirds from a willow rattled like paper fans.
Then there was the whippoorwill who simply sounded like himself.
Behind him was the pine warbler with his stretched song . . .
I knew that when the birds were alone they acted differently than in flocks. I listened for solo birds: the eastern phoebe, the hermit thrush, the vesper sparrow, the swamp sparrow . . .
The vesper sparrow started by singing sweet, sweet, sweet . . .
The grosbeak was a wire unwinding.
I heard the downy woodpecker. The northern flicker . . .
I was supremely theirs. The marsh wren, the veery, Swainson’s thrush . . .
They moved from branch to branch.
The goldfinch. Eastern meadowlark . . .
I learned to follow the movements and voice of a single thrush.
The thrush produced point notes like strings played pizzicato on a violin. First he was in the audible field of my left ear. And I held still. There was the whine of a mosquito, the slow vibrato of a bee. Red squirrels chattered and dodged in the underbrush. Then the thrush poured out dozens of notes and I could sense exactly where he was. He was high in a white pine, a tree that had numerous long-dead branches protruding from its trunk. I thought of the tree as having witch’s arms. He was up there. He was still in the circle of my left ear. He was very alive. He was throwing darts of sound and his tempo was fast as a bird’s heart would allow. I thought of a dying thrush that I had held in my hand, its heart like the clatter of twigs caught in bicycle spokes.
Then he stopped singing for maybe thirty seconds. And there he was again, singing into my right ear. It was definitely him, the voice unmistakable. My secret purple thrush, my fist-sized harpsichordist.
Alone at night in my room, I pushed an olivewood camel, a trinket from a Middle Eastern tourist shop, across a window. The glass squeaked at the touch of the camel’s feet. I pushed these sounds before me like flags.
I lay awake long into the night.
I said the Lord’s Prayer though my voice was scarcely audible. The room was wonderfully cold. A snowy owl talked in his owl code—three calls—then silence for the same duration—then three more calls. He was a singer out of nowhere.
The birds offered me their audible contours and perspectives. By day the blackbird cried from the tunnel of his fever. The nuthatch sang like rain falling into a tin dish. These birds became my foreground. And a herring gull called because he was following the Oyster River and saw something glitter in the leaves.
One morning I found the wild orchid. I was just following the high song of a pheasant through the leaves, crawling on my hands and knees. The lady’s slipper was a dainty curl of petals and I heard the scrabbling feet of the pheasants in the leaves and I lay down to let the mauves and violets into my eyes. And the pheasants circled like all walking birds, dry-dancing around me in formation.
Sometimes ice would form between the trees behind my house. I walked among the pines because I was lucky and small and the ice would hold me. But as I moved the ice moved. I heard how it shifted in more than one way. I took a step and a bubble of air jumped like a mouse under my feet and the rolling, trapped air sounded like a very tiny spoon striking a glass. I took another innocent step. Again the spoon. Then the air rolled into the roots of a tree where it made no more noise. I could picture that bubble of air down in the tangle of roots. And then I lay on the ice and put my ear to the surface. I heard the ice shift and groan like a plank. And then I rolled across the open ice and listened to the creaking and laughing of ice and frozen wood. I was thrilled to discover I could influence the percussive speech of the frozen world.
I rolled too fast then. Ice broke beneath me. There was no water underneath, only air. The ice came in around me like silver coins. I rolled and felt shards of ice around my cheekbones and in my hair. Ice got up under my jacket and clicked like twigs caught in a wheel. What good music this was! It was instantaneous and my little boy’s mind could make sounds happen and the world smelled of fresh snow.
There was a wire fence in the woods and I found that I could play it like a harp. The fence was rusted and frozen and it sagged among rocks. If you plucked it with a finger it sounded like a dark piano string.
And birch trees swayed, their skins of ice making a bright, sympathetic sunlit music. I shook the birches one by one and was rewarded with the sound of ice skittering down from the high branches. I loved that confusion of ice with its thousand tiny blades all cutting at the light.
In the house, down in the basement, my mother collected large metal drums. She was quietly building a bomb shelter in a pitch-black corner. She stacked metal drums that were intended to hold drinking water but she never filled them. I found that I could play them as instruments, tapping them with my fingers, or opening the cans I put marbles inside so I could hear them roll. Over forty years later, sitting with my wife in Carnegie Hall, I heard an intricate postmodern concerto by Mstislav Rostropovich and I knew at once he too had been a lonely child. One simply pushes his or her homemade music and gets through the dark that way. And some children are noticed by their parents and perhaps they’re lucky and their parents buy them instruments. At La Scala, the opera house in Milan, one can see Giuseppe Verdi’s boyhood piano. Pencil marks have been drawn across the keys—the notes scrawled by Verdi’s father so his little boy could find his way through the forest of sound.
And then there are those children who simply play with ice.
In the summer of 1962 I was sent to live with my grandmother in the old resort town of Laconia, New Hampshire. At her home two things became immediately apparent. Just like my mother, my grandmother liked to sleep through the afternoon. But my grandmother seemed to have no friends. She lived solely in the world of her Victorian house.
It was August and wet and rain struck at the tall windows until they sounded like snare drums. I thought of British soldiers striding through Concord. I thought of the troops in Washington’s army marching in the rain. And so I decided to be a soldier and walk outside. It was early afternoon and my grandmother was sound asleep.
I followed a crooked path down to the old garage.
Rain pounded on abandoned steel drums in the uncut grass. There was a way to crawl under the garage at the rear of the building. I went under it and slithered on my stomach and toads made way for me in the dead leaves. Streams poured in runnels alongside the garage. I fell asleep in my burrow.
It rained for ten consecutive days, and over the long hours, hours when I was far too much on my own, I found my way to the top of my grandmother’s decaying house. At the top of a dusty staircase I discovered a heavy door. Behind it I could hear the fluttering of wings. There were birds or bats in there. I knew my grandmother most likely had a broken window.
The attic was enormous and there were pigeons and squirrels and hornets making separate declarations. The hornets had their own corner beside a window and I knew it would be simple enough to leave them alone. But I did sit down and listen to them for a time. They flew in small orbits around the room. I remember my surprise when I found that they could fly past my head without making a sound. I simply heard a rent in the still air as the hornet flew by in a straight line.
Other hornets hit the window and made a noise like thrown buttons.
I found another door and stepped into a room that was full of wingbeats. Pigeons rose wildly to the ceiling beams when I pushed the door. I pressed my way in and listened as one by one the birds found their mysterious way out. There were quick rustlings as they vanished.
It was in the next room that I found my first Victrola.
The old machine stood on a table, its horn imperial.
With my minimal sight I could see the inflorescence of spiderwebs and soot.
I stood still for a minute, and when I was satisfied that the Victrola wasn’t dangerous I touched it.
At once the platter turned and there was a groan!
The long needle was still perched in the groove of a disk.
I turned the record with my finger and produced a pitiless, unformed sound, a noise like a wrought-iron hinge. When I turned the record again I heard the raging wind from some unidentifiable continent.
I pictured the neck of the horn: a black maw, holding men, faces, eyes, and opened hands.
Sound, like love, can be sudden and threatening.
In that attic, turning the record, I felt the pulse of my discovery. I stayed until sunset.
The next day I climbed the forgotten stairs again and found that by turning the handle I could set the record spinning freely.
The recording was Caruso’s “Vesti la giubba.”
Years later I would find out that this was the best-selling recording of the twentieth century until Elvis Presley surpassed it with “All Shook Up.”
In the teens and early twenties people bought Caruso’s recordings when they bought their record machines. They were buying tragedy by the truckload.
I listened to Canio, the clown and murderer . . . the hollow needle . . . a noise of pitching metal and wax . . . It sounded as if a vital man was singing through a steam pipe from a room in a cellar.
Then the frightful laughter . . . I ran each time I heard it . . . the cachinnation of a madman suddenly rose from the enormous bell of the trumpet . . .
I had to return to the attic a dozen times that summer before I could finally hear the aria in full.
The Victrola sang from its great, crackling heart.
And my own heart raced.
My grandmother seemed to live only to smoke cigarettes. She smoked languidly, lighting Kents with a Zippo. The lighter clicked shut like a lock.
I heard the far sound of squeaking pulleys. A woman was hanging laundry in the sun.
Someone was hammering at an even greater distance. But whoever held the hammer was uncertain.
A tamarack tree had grown unkempt and leaned into the porch. Its needles stirred against the handrail.
My grandmother smoked with perfect delicacy. The Zippo came out again.
She was a woman of silences. I never saw her in the company of others.
A chickadee called from his upside-down perch. Even as a little boy I thought of the chickadee as a bird of superficial happiness. He cried fee-bee-bee as if the circus was coming. I wanted to tell him it was only a mournful day in summer at my grandmother’s enormous and vaguely frightening house.
“Listen,” my grandmother said without warning. “Can you hear that?” She didn’t say what the “that” might be. I listened though.
From far down the street came a sputtering sound. A sound like a huge motorized teakettle. It was definitely a machine noise. It seemed far away and it was moving slowly.
“That’s a Model A Ford,” my grandmother said. “An old-fashioned car,” she added. “That car must be forty years old.”
It drove past us with its strategic and showy motor.
“Do you really know the sound of each car?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she said, “I know the sound of every car ever made.”
She sounded mildly surprised that I hadn’t known this about her.
“Your grandfather built cars fifty years ago. I’ve always been interested in cars ever since.”
“Hear that?” she said.
I heard the approach of an engine.
“That’s a Studebaker!” she said.
“How do you know?” I was surprised to hear myself talking.
“A Studebaker is noisy, like a little locomotive,” she said, then added, “It’s not a very good car.”
I had a new appreciation for my silent and remote grandmother. She became for me, a blind kid alone in summer—she became my first guru of listening.
“Hear that?” she said. “That’s a cowbird. It’s the only bird that lays its eggs in another bird’s nest. Then it flies away and leaves the owner of the nest to raise its young. It’s my favorite bird.”
Because we were talking and listening together, she decided to take me to an anteroom just off the front parlor. There was a tall wooden radio that stood alone in a corner.
“Can you see this?” she said. “Here, put your nose on it.”
The radio had a green glass eye that glowed when the machine was turned on. With my nose directly on the glass eye I could feel the electricity humming through the huge box.
A burst of static suddenly popped from the speaker and I jumped.
“It’s just warming up,” my grandmother said. She grabbed my hand and pressed it against a knob.
“This is the knob for changing the stations.”
Then she grabbed my other hand.
“This is the knob for the volume. Don’t ever turn the volume up. You can listen but I don’t want to hear this from my room.”
Her room was half a dozen rooms away. I wondered what she could hear. If she could hear the radio from across that distance, how could she sleep so soundly?
She let go of my hands and I sat on the floor.
She tuned a station.
A growl came out.
“That’s Arthur Godfrey,” she said with a slight rising note of admiration.
Arthur Godfrey mumbled from inside the box of glass tubes and wires. He sounded exhausted. Then he laughed. His laughter also sounded exhausted.
I pressed my nose against the radio’s cloth-draped speaker and felt the vibrating laughter on my face. And I smelled dust and the odor of electrical wiring.
“Remember, don’t turn it up.” My grandmother lingered for a moment, observing me. Then she walked away.
Living in my grandmother’s house was so utterly isolating that I started to have a premature sense that I was like a long-distance swimmer. I knew I was swimming through the solo hours. Looking back, I see how stoic I was. Remembering solitude is to remember how I pressed my face to the cool trunk of an ironwood tree and closed my eyes and listened to a single cricket.
My New Hampshire grandfather died the year I was born but his presence still remained in the house. Those were his Caruso records in the attic. He had been a manufacturer of early automobiles and motorcycles. During the First World War he supplied munitions for the U.S. government. There were still cases of blasting caps in the cellar alongside the dusty mason jars and the rotten snowshoes. No one seemed to care that explosives were slowly becoming unstable down in the basement. I played in the cellar and used the empty dynamite cartons as fortresses for my toy soldiers.
One day after spending hours in the basement I climbed the stairs to the kitchen in search of my grandmother. I’d found a surplus gas mask and I had no idea what it was.
I looked first in her bedroom, which was just down a corridor from the old servants’ kitchen. She wasn’t there. I walked into the front foyer past the grandfather clock and into the living room. No one. I looked in my grandfather’s former study. I climbed the wide stairs to the second floor and nosed along a corridor.
It came over me that I was alone in the house and there wasn’t a sound from anywhere. There wasn’t any traffic noise outside. No one was mowing a lawn in the neighborhood.
I pressed my face to an oval of leaded glass beside the front door. I liked the play of speckled light on my eye. I heard suddenly a low muttering that seemed to come from the heart of the tiny window. Go away, said the window. Who was watching me? Whose voice came from that circle of glass?
My grandmother walked in the back door about an hour later. She’d been uncharacteristically active, cutting and arranging flowers. I decided not to tell her about the voice.
A night of thunder followed that very same evening. While my grandmother watched The Lawrence Welk Show I excused myself and headed for the attic. I’d learned to love lightning storms and I knew the attic was the best place in the world to hear them.
Maybe it was my blindness that allowed me to wander the old attic in a storm without any anxiety. Maybe it had to do with having conquered my fear of the Victrola. Whatever it was, the attic was my favorite place.
The oak beams of the mansard roof were squeaking in the wind. I wound up the Victrola and let Caruso out of his box. I lay on the dusty floor as the lightning zeroed in. I was creating a provincial world from the sounds that were available to me. Thunder rattled the loose glass in a window.
One hot Sunday afternoon I was so lonely I decided to turn on the old radio in the parlor. It stood at least a foot taller than I did. Static snapped from the speaker. I waited for the green eye to glow. I sat while the tubes heated and the wiring hummed. At last I turned the dial and tuned in a station. Glenn Miller’s big band tune “In the Mood” boomed from the speaker. I could feel the music sparking in the air. It was completely terrifying. I don’t know if there’s a term for this condition but there should be: the childhood fear of jazz from an old radio . . . I was literally unable to move. The song and the radio were cooking me alive. Finally, like someone dying in a dream, I managed to make my feet move. I backed away and ran.
I raced into the hot afternoon and worked my way blindly down the street. The neighborhood seemed ancient. The houses were all Victorian temples—they rose like gray cliffs in my diminished view. I couldn’t see the particulars. There could have been dogs or people but I didn’t see them. I only saw the colors and shadows of the old street.
I walked for a long time. I heard the wind everywhere above me.
It was as if the neighborhood died along with my grandfather.
There were no children.
Sometimes a car passed with a whisper.
I sat under a tree and smelled decaying leaves and grass.
I thought of the radio playing back in my grandmother’s parlor and imagined that it was still shaking and pouring out its hideous music. I remembered the radio’s dreadful green eye.
I don’t know why I was sent to live with my grandmother in that Dickensian place. My parents fought. They lived in the everlasting stress of alcohol abuse. My grandmother’s house was immense and I suppose that my mother thought I would be out of sight and out of mind. I’m certain that my blindness was a factor. There were no children in the neighborhood. My mother would have imagined this as a plus—I could stay inside. I could wander from room to room.
One night, unable to sleep, I climbed the front stairs and stopped on the first landing. I pulled two balustrades from the railing of the stairs. Once they were removed I had easy access to the back of the grandfather clock that stood in a curve of the staircase. The clock had a louvered panel in the back, and with the hole I had opened in the railing I could put my head right into the machinery of the thing.
I heard chains raise and lower the iron weights. They had a vocabulary. The rising chain said watch, watch, watch, watch.
The lowered chain said lucky, lucky, lucky.
Something in the trim of the chains was out of kilter, and as they rose or fell the weights would swing and tap the glass that fronted the clock’s lower body. The weights tapped the glass like raindrops.
I liked my perch at midnight. I took away the spindles from the banister and pulled aside the louvered portal and probed the secrets of the clock. The rising chain was near its zenith and the tension as it lifted the weights changed the pitch of its secret talk. It said lucky, but the chain spoke fast like a boy with thin arms carrying jugs of water.
There was a click from the center of the gearbox. It was like the tip of a needle tapping a dish.
Then came the sound of wings, a stirring of parts, hidden life rose into the air. A complaint of thin metal . . . old gears shuddered . . . dark fingers grabbed and clutched . . . the mahogany shivered . . . spoons clattered . . . All the clock’s parts were arguing at once . . . the chimes stirred with a sound of bed-springs . . . the hammers reared back . . .
The chimes were violent, rising, shaking.
Both the glass and wood of the clock’s casement and the bones of my ears were stunned.
I felt my way back to bed with my ears still ringing.
After supper I tried to get my grandmother to talk.
“What about the old days?” I asked as we sat on the porch in the growing twilight.
She was in a wicker chair and sipping lemonade.
Suddenly she said, “Your grandfather who you never knew, he had to save your mother from a wildcat one night.”
She stopped for a moment and turned her chair toward me.
“That was when your mother was about the age you are now,” she said.
“We were at the farm near Gilmanton, and there was a screened porch where your mother and your Aunt Muriel were sleeping on army cots. We always had lots of porcupines at that place so you really couldn’t sleep outdoors. It was better if you slept on the porch. Anyway, in the middle of the night your grandfather heard a wildcat scream. It sounded like it was close to the house so he got up and found his rifle and went downstairs.”
My grandmother had a way of talking that suggested irritation with every sentence. She certainly didn’t want any interruptions.
“Anyway, when he got downstairs he saw the wildcat was up in the rafters right over your mother and your Aunt Muriel.”
She sipped her lemonade and added for effect, “You can’t shoot a wildcat if it’s right above someone. And besides, there was a kerosene lantern right beside your mother’s bed.”
“What happened?” I asked. She’d stopped her story momentarily. She lit her cigarette.
“Your grandfather rushed into the room with a mop in his hand and waved it like a baseball bat and pushed open the screen door and waved that mop. And the cat leapt out the door.”
In the coming years I would grow to believe my grandmother’s family stories were embellished, but at seven I was mesmerized. I loved her yarns about my dynamite-loving grandfather who according to family legend blew up an out-house just for the sheer hell of it. One night when he could no longer stand the noise of the porcupines rocking in the wicker chairs on the front porch, he came storming out with his gun aiming to shoot them. But the porcupines scurried in all directions as he struggled with the safety on the gun. Eventually he chased one into a utility shed and fired as it retreated behind a metal bean pot. The bullet ricocheted and struck my grandfather in the head. Everyone in the family agreed it was just a flesh wound. He bandaged his head and went about his business. The porcupine died under the floor of the toolshed and my grandfather spent a day pulling up floorboards while enduring the terrible stink of a dead animal, and of course the porcupine was under the last board he ripped from the floor. My grandmother loved this story. “He almost passed out in that hot little shack,” she said. The man’s suffering still ardently pleased her.
When I came home from my grandmother’s I went directly to the hospital for eye surgery. I don’t remember much about the explanations I received from my parents. It seemed like one minute I was listening to the gears of a clock and then I was in a hospital bed.
The night ward was a corridor of footsteps. I heard nurses and doctors walking on the linoleum and I pulled my sheet over my head.
When the doctor appeared he caught me by surprise. His shoes made no sound at all. He pulled back my sheets without warning and stood and looked down on me in silence.
He addressed himself to people I couldn’t see as I lay in the fetal position and held my breath. This was my first experience of being described for others. The doctor refered to me as “this boy” or “this particular case” and the people behind him took notes. I could hear the pencils moving over paper.
When he was through the doctor departed without a word and his retinue followed in silent obedience. I could hear their voices murmuring in the corridor as they walked to another room.
I remember one other sound from the hospital: children weeping in the night.
After the surgery I wore bandages on my eyes.
My father read aloud to me from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and I imagined Huck and Tom running blindfolded through the cave as they tried to elude Injun Joe.
My father with his slight Finnish accent was a wonderful reader. Unlike the American dads, he put emphasis and musicality into his words. He made voices for the different characters.
He looked up from the book and told me not to rub my bandages in a low voice, the voice of a Scandinavian troll.
He tried to read in the voice of a young girl and it sounded like an old woman and it was funny.
He howled when Tom must have his tooth pulled.
When he finished reading I lay on the chaise lounge in the garden and listened to the crickets.
The crickets made lively ripples of music. They sounded settled in the late afternoon sunlight. The crickets who never fell asleep.
I didn’t like going outside with my bandages but my father decided it was a good moment to take me to the circus.
We stood beside the lion tamer’s cage. The lions made a sound not unlike the pigs in the university’s barn, a dry coughing that didn’t sound very ferocious.
I fidgeted with the bandages. Adults, friends of my parents, or strangers, all had ways of suggesting that I was terribly unfortunate. “How did he get those bandages on his face?” said a woman who rang up our groceries. “Maybe there will be a small miracle!” said our postman. Walking through the circus tent with the bandages was like wandering a moonlit road. I imagined the lions were surveying me. They grunted like sows. They snorted in secret communication. They were decidedly unlion-like. They sounded fat and bored. I pressed my face to the bars of the cage.
We walked arm in arm, my father and I. I heard cage doors being opened. Doors being slammed. A man carried pails of water, the water slopping. Pulleys were like the wheels of a slow cart. There was a hum of ropes . . . Wind pushed the giant tent. All around us was the rank odor of canvas and dirty hay.
Clowns were climbing in and out of an old touring car. The motor chugged. The clowns were practicing their act: a dozen men like Keystone Kops threw themselves repeatedly into an open flivver. “Can we watch you practice?” my father asked, and a clown with a baritone voice who saw my bandaged face said, “What became of him?” My father later told me his accent was Russian. “What became of him?” I can hear the question to this day, forty years later. “Eye surgery,” my father said. “Please stay,” said the Russian clown. We stood at the edge of their mayhem. Their trousers ripped like flimsy sheets. Flat oversized rubber shoes slapped against the floor; slapped against the tin sides of the car; slapped against the backsides of lurching clowns who hung precariously from other clowns.
Of course I knew none of this at the moment. My father would describe their antics later as we drove home. At the moment of their leaping in that red wind I heard their groans, their innumerable gasps and curses.
The circus would open tomorrow. The lions kept snorting as if they were exhausted. The clowns sounded like birds hitting a window.
My father leaned close. “Don’t rub your bandages,” he said.
At night I listened to Tchaikovsky on the radio in my parents’ living room. Swan Lake took over my heart. I could see flowers hanging over the water and a bird gliding all alone at the end of summer. I clutched a pillow so as not to rub my bandages. I was instantly in love with the music and I hunched into it.
I asked my parents to buy the record and they did. I listened to Swan Lake nearly a hundred times.
When my bandages came off my father took me to hear a symphony orchestra. The concert was held in the university’s old field house, a building with a dirt floor and high windows and wooden bleachers.
Our seats were very close to the musicians. Though I couldn’t see the orchestra I could see the gleam of horns moving, the sudden flashes of light.
The orchestra was so loud I clutched my ears. The horns exploded around us.
Before long I was crying. I couldn’t control myself and wept hysterically as the great horns shook the air.
My father asked if my eyes were hurting me. I kept weeping. I didn’t know how to tell him there were notes all around us that meant more than the words I could speak. I was inside it: I was Tchaikovsky’s somehow. And of course I couldn’t answer. I was afraid to interrupt all those dark horns.
The girl across the street suddenly had a transistor radio.
She waved it above her head and used the word “portable.”
“It’s the size,” she said, “of a deck of playing cards.”
The first thing to jump out of Ann Robinson’s radio in my presence was “Bring It on Home to Me” by Sam Cooke. The song swayed or the man did. Sam Cooke was up high. And he was sad. And his voice was lighter than lace.
Sam Cooke remains the king of pop-music loneliness for me. Others may substitute Patsy Cline or Hank Williams Sr. or Ray Charles. In any event you know it when you hear it for the first time. The sound has a thickness, like the fatness of certain flowers, and the sadness is redolent, you swear it has a fragrance. And your blood travels for a moment on the back of someone else’s song.
And so I went home and begged for my own transistor radio.
My head filled with the Isley Brothers, Bobby Vee, the Drifters, Roy Orbison.
I loved the song titles best: “Your Nose Is Going to Grow”; “Venus in Blue Jeans”; “Shadrack” . . .
There was “Al Di La’ ” by Emilio Pericoli . . .
“All Alone Am I”—Brenda Lee . . .
“Beechwood 4-5789”—the Marvelettes . . .
“Big Girls Don’t Cry”—the 4 Seasons . . .
“Bongo Stomp”—Little Joey . . .
“Bristol Twistin’ Annie”—the Dovells . . .
“The Cha-Cha-Cha”—Bobby Rydell . . .
“The Cinnamon Cinder”—the Pastel Six . . .
“Crying in the Rain”—the Everly Brothers . . .
“Don’t Go Near the Indians”—Rex Allen . . .
“The Duke of Earl”—Gene Chandler . . .
“My Boomerang Won’t Come Back”—Charlie Drake . . .
“Summertime, Summertime”—the Jamies . . .
“She Can’t Find Her Keys”—Paul Peterson . . .
I loved the hiss between the stations. The radio’s plastic dial was inexact and it took a little finesse to get a signal. I learned to identify the songs as they played: “I Fall to Pieces,” Patsy Cline; “Michael (Row the Boat Ashore),” the Highwaymen; “Cryin’,” Roy Orbison; “Runaway,” Del Shannon; “Pony Time,” Chubby Checker; “Wheels,” the String-a-Longs; “Raindrops,” Dee Clark; “Take Good Care of My Baby,” Bobby Vee; “(Will You Love Me) Tomorrow,” the Shirelles; “Hit the Road, Jack,” Ray Charles; “Shop Around,” the Miracles; “The Boll Weevil Song,” Brook Benton; “Ya Ya,” Lee Dorsey . . .
The music was outlandish. Every singer was brokenhearted though I hadn’t a clue as to why this should be so. But I loved it. The songs were filled with tears—unborn tears, future tears, solo tears . . .
I turned off the radio and held my breath and listened to crickets singing from all directions.
I turned on the radio and heard Dee Clark’s “Raindrops.” It was the voice of a man standing on tiptoe and reaching for something sweet.
I turned off the radio and heard this tree and that grass and this soft ticking of tangled branches far above.
Radio on. “Take Good Care of My Baby” by Bobby Vee . . . I was still small enough to take “baby” literally. Why is this man giving away his baby?
A fussy crow scolded the whole world. If he had arms he’d be waving them. He’d be standing in the middle of the street.
“Breakin’ In a Brand New Broken Heart”—Connie Francis . . .
The first leaves falling at the end of summer. Pine wind . . .
“Please Stay” by the Drifters . . .
The radio became my tutor. I was a student of loneliness.
Something was going on out there. People with impossibly beautiful voices were crying. Connie Francis was crying. The boys and girls were crying under stars.
Yes. There was plenty of heartache to go around.
It was a green day. My eyes took in a tapestry of woven colors, green shade, dark stones, impossibly bright yellow sparks of sun between trees. I lay flat on my back and listened to Elvis Presley. He was singing a song called “Little Sister” and even Elvis was sad.
In the late summer of 1963 my father moved our family to Albany, New York, where he took a job working on one of Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s pet projects—the expansion of New York’s state university system.
We moved into a suburban housing development where every home looked alike and where no two families stayed for more than a year. All the fathers worked for Bell Telephone or Niagara Mohawk Power and Electric. Everyone was on the move.
I wore my earpiece and listened at night to radio stations from across the nation and knew that the whole country was moving fast. The Beach Boys sang about “Surfin’ USA” and there were dozens of songs about cars and roads.
It’s strange how sometimes as a kid you can understand abstract things. One night I heard a woman on the radio tell the announcer that she loved his program so much she was planning to have a radio in her coffin along with extra batteries so she could tune in after she died. Call-in programs were just becoming popular and I felt the sadness of the business. The radio had a kind of desperation about it and I could feel this. I could tell that the radio was taking the place of something more important though I didn’t know for sure what that might be. But I knew enough to think of that woman planning her radio burial as a thing that was both ghastly and ridiculous.
Still I clung to songs. “My Boyfriend’s Back”; “Sukiyaki”; “He’s So Fine”; “Rhythm of the Rain” . . .
Then John Kennedy was dead and I was back to wearing bandages on my eyes, having managed to poke myself with a screwdriver while playing in the garage. I sat beside the television and listened to the hooves of the horses as they pulled Kennedy’s caisson to the cemetery. The funerary drumbeats were stirring and doleful. The marine band played “For Those in Peril on the Sea” and I felt along with the rest of the nation a bereavement none of us had known before. My father wept while he watered the lawn. “It’s worse than when FDR died,” my mother said.
This moment predictably enough turned me inward. Of course tens of thousands of the nation’s children were traumatized by the president’s death, but in my case the introspective hours became a fixation. Years later in therapy I would understand that the president’s murder caused a nervous reaction in my eight-year-old mind. I was wearing telescopic spectacles in November of 1963—they were oversized bubble-shaped glasses that were designed to assist me with reading the chalkboard in school. The glasses didn’t work because in addition to my retinal damage I had little or no muscular control over my eyes. When I stared through the telescopic lenses my eyes jumped uncontrollably and I saw only light and darkness.
But a kid who sat next to me—I’ll call him Glenn—said quite loudly, “Well doesn’t he look like Oswald?” We were at recess and Glenn pointed at my glasses. “Yeah, Oswald used telescopes just like that to shoot Kennedy!”
Glenn had hoped to start a chant of “Oswald, Oswald!” But no one joined him and the moment fizzled. But I was tunneling into a synthetic world of radio waves with a new urgency. I thought of that woman who wanted to be buried with her radio. I wondered if they’d bury me with my telescopes.
For company I had my grandmother’s 78 rpm recordings of Caruso. I sat in my suburban living room playing opera arias. I loved everything about those records: the deep red of the RCA Victor labels, the speed of the 78s on the turntable, the hollow sound of the old-fashioned recordings that were made in the years before the introduction of the electric microphone. During the recording sessions Caruso sang into a paper horn that was connected to a diaphragm and stylus. The vibrations of his voice carved the grooves in the master disk. While Caruso sang the orchestra was situated forty to fifty feet behind the tenor, and on the records the accompaniment always sounded weak—as if the instruments were played underwater. I loved the anemic bleating of the horns and the desperate strings of the violins. My favorite record was the aria from Gounod’s Faust, “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure”—the violins on the recording were pitiful. Caruso’s voice saved the orchestra because he had raw power and there was something in his baritonal tenor that the primitive recording apparatus liked. And then there was the high C that shivered from the electric speaker of my Westing-house portable record player—a sustained and thrilling note that comes near the end of the aria. That particular high C is considered by many opera buffs to be the greatest high C ever sung because it has a painful artistry about it. One can think of it as a tenor’s high note rendered in the manner of a blues singer. Faust’s love is doomed even as he soars. I listened to that old record over and over again in November and December of 1963.
Predictably the neighborhood kids made fun of me. Listening to Massenet couldn’t be explained and it did no good to play the aria “O Souverain” from Le Cid—trying to get any of them to listen to the music was just an admission of my ultimate dorkishness. I wore telescopes. I knew Lee Harvey Oswald personally. I played ancient opera records, and worst of all, I would sing along in French. When I listened to those records I was back in New Hampshire in the attic and in a way I was also back in the woods.
One night the telephone rang and I raced to get it. My parents often praised me for my good phone manners, which meant that although I received no calls of my own they were pleased to have me answer the phone. I knew right away that I was talking to the governor of New York because Nelson Rockefeller’s voice was pure gravel. Then, having asked for my father, he thought for a second and inquired how I was doing. He didn’t know me. He probably asked all kids that question. I said I was listening to Caruso records. “Really?” said the governor. “I love Caruso! I grew up listening to him! My mother knew him! Good for you!”
I knew the joy of not having to say a word.
It was around this time that I discovered the pleasure of simply standing still on the street.
I found that I could stop anywhere—bring to a close the walking I was doing and the thinking that went with it—and suddenly the ambient noise of the neighborhood would open around me. The ordinary street outside our suburban house was surprisingly beautiful with all its fractions of living. There were little reports of living going on in every quadrant. A car slid by with its windows rolled down and a radio voice said, “You can whip them into shape with . . .” And then the car was out of hearing range, the voice dwindling into fuzzed vocables. You can whip them into shape with . . . with the pope’s tennis racket, with the world’s longest strand of spaghetti . . . I stood still and a man’s voice came from across the street—there was a sound of something heavy and metallic dropped on concrete. “That’s the end of that,” I heard him say. He was a man with a trash can. I imagined that he had thrown away all the crucial paperwork of his life—that’s the end of that—no more birth certificate, marriage license, dental records, children’s report cards, vaccination certificates, tax returns, baptism records, insurance claims, dog tags, man tags, rag tags—“Any rags, any bones, any bottles today?”—I heard the voice of Groucho Marx imitating the ragpickers on the Lower East Side of New York City—I’d been watching the Marx Brothers on television—the movies were perfect for a blind kid . . . all lingua subversica—the ragpicker must be notified—there’s a good can over here on (insert name of street—any town in the world) . . . I was standing still. Whip them into shape. Throw away your life. A woman with two poodles walked by. “Did you lose something?” she asked. Why would a boy be standing still? Before I could answer she spoke to one of her dogs: “Leave the worm alone, Giselle!” “No,” I told her, “I’m just listening.” “Listening?” she said with a note of disbelief. Her poodles were prancing. She decided to keep walking.
Airplane, propeller-driven. Slow as a bumblebee. I wondered if it was trailing a banner. “Whip them into shape . . .” A door opened in a nearby house. It slammed shut. Footsteps. Then the footsteps stopped. I expected to hear a car engine starting up. No car engine. Where did the maker of footsteps disappear to? He climbed up a rope ladder into the sky. Climbed aboard the circling plane.
The ordinary street was as weird and lovely as the mind itself. All one had to do was stop.
I didn’t know who I might explain this to. I wondered if Rockefeller would be interested. I thought of us sitting together and listening to Caruso. I’d tell him that French poodles eat earthworms. We’d listen to Faust.
I could hear my mother in the night. She mixed pills in the kitchen. She dropped pills on the linoleum. They fell to the floor like dropped buttons. The floor would squeak as she walked in tight circles, sometimes bending to pick up fallen capsules.
I heard ice drop into her glass. My mother, alive on whiskey and barbiturates . . .
And then she was too hot and the windows went up. And then she had to move the furniture, climb up high, there was a speck on the ceiling. She would stand on a rickety table and wash the ceiling with her moistened index finger. Or else she’d move the furniture because she’d lost something long ago—a wristwatch, a paperback novel . . .
From the age of ten or so I would lie awake and listen to her moving restlessly about the house. I wondered what she was hearing? In my teenage years when I experimented with drugs I listened to rock and roll, hoping to glean nuances of meaning from the dialogue of shouts and rhythm. But my mother listened to no music. And so I must imagine that her pills had their own tiny and operatic recitatives. These must have been ironical, bitter, or jeering . . . Or else they produced the sound of wind in a trellis and the whispers of a child in hiding. Who knows the misery of others? I know she walked around the house almost nightly. And I know that dull matter, spoons and shelves and all the other homely oddments, would clatter to the floor or refuse to help her.
The secret of pills is the secret of the Sphinx. The pill taker is the Eleusinian candidate waiting in tall grass. Soon it will come: verdure, sympathy of thought, the bright jellyfish of the over-mind, love and love rising in the spine and tipping the scales of mind.
I was awake. I now know that being unable to sleep is a coefficient of visual loss. Many blind people lie awake in a weird radio-astronomy of concentrated thinking. And down below me in the cold kitchen my mother walked around in her small clattering way. I’m here, said her footsteps. I’m here. Such a midnight sound . . .
I was barely home from school. My shirt was torn at the shoulder because a tall and oddly stinky boy named Jerry had ripped the seam while shouting, “Let’s court-martial him! Let’s ‘brand’ him for being a deserter! He’s a traitor to our country!”
With that five boys from the sixth grade piled on top of me. I’d been sitting alone under a tree and listening to the red-winged blackbirds. The birds sounded like plastic combs scraped by thumbs. Now Jerry and the boys were holding me down in the grass, punching my arms, tearing my sleeves, singing a television sitcom theme song that had something to do with branding a man who was a traitor to the Union army. My glasses flew away into the underbrush. My spine buckled.
They sang on top of me in unison, like the Hitler Youth.
“What do you do when you’re branded
“Aw shit,” said Jerry, “He’s too skinny for branding!” They took to punching each other and then they ran away in a kind of scrum, slapping each other and laughing as they disappeared.
I learned how to reclaim the world after these moments by entering a self-made audible environment. In my room at home I listened to Talking Books for the Blind on long-playing records from the Library of Congress. While a book played on one record player I’d listen to classical music on another machine. I heard, simultaneously, the songs of Hector Berlioz and chapters from Huckleberry Finn. I loved Berlioz’s treatment of the death of Ophelia, the soprano and the pianist sinking in a wholly Romantic way. The piano poured gentle waves over the drowning girl. The Berlioz songs were pastries for the ear and I loved them because they were equally sincere and crazy. Kids do get these things. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain presents Huck both loving and mocking the drawings of a death-obsessed girl, Emmeline Grangerford, who in fact dies early from a fever. I loved that section of Huck Finn and played it over several times. Huck describes the dead girl’s pictures this way:
There was some that they called crayons, which one of the daughters which was dead made her own self when she was only fifteen years old. They was different from any pictures I ever see before; blacker, mostly, than is common. One was a woman in a slim black dress, belted small under the armpits, with bulges like a cabbage in the middle of the sleeves, and a large black scoop-shovel bonnet with a black veil, and white slim ankles crossed about with black tape, and very wee black slippers, like a chisel, and she was leaning pensive on a tombstone on her right elbow, under a weeping willow, and her other hand hanging down her side holding a white handkerchief and a reticule, and underneath the picture it said “Shall I Never See Thee More Alas.” Another one was a young lady with her hair all combed up straight to the top of her head, and knotted there in front of a comb like a chair-back, and she was crying into a handkerchief and had a dead bird laying on its back in her other hand with its heels up, and underneath the picture it said “I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas.” There was one where a young lady was at a window looking up at the moon, and tears running down her cheeks; and she had an open letter in one hand with black sealing-wax showing on one edge of it, and she was mashing a locket with a chain to it against her mouth, and underneath the picture it said “And Art Thou Gone Yes Thou Art Gone Alas.” These was all nice pictures, I reckon, but I didn’t somehow seem to take to them, because if ever I was down a little they always give me the fantods. Everybody was sorry she died, because she had laid out a lot more of these pictures to do, and a body could see by what she had done what they had lost. But I reckoned, that with her disposition, she was having a better time in the graveyard. She was at work on what they said was her greatest picture when she took sick, and every day and every night it was her prayer to be allowed to live till she got it done, but she never got the chance. It was a picture of a young woman in a long white gown, standing on the rail of a bridge all ready to jump off, with her hair all down her back, and looking up to the moon, with the tears running down her face, and she had two arms folded across her breast, and two arms stretched out in front, and two more reaching up towards the moon—and the idea was, to see which pair would look best and then scratch out all the other arms; but, as I was saying, she died before she got her mind made up, and now they kept this picture over the head of the bed in her room, and every time her birthday come they hung flowers on it. Other times it was hid with a little curtain. The young woman in the picture had a kind of a nice sweet face . . .
I was alone in my suburban bedroom, chewing black licorice, listening to Twain and Berlioz. I could still smell Jerry’s sweat on my torn sleeve: it was an odor like apples and methane. The record players scratched and delivered their multiple voices. After the drowning of Ophelia the Berlioz record offered up a song called “La Captive” that began: “If I were not a captive, / I would have loved this land . . .” I had no idea what the song was actually about. But it was filled with an abundance of misery and sweetness.
One afternoon after listening to Caruso singing “Core’ngrato” I caught the end of the Four O’Clock Movie on television. The film was The Great Caruso starring Mario Lanza. What an amazing thing! My operatic hero was there before me, the subject of a Hollywood tearjerker. I’d tuned in at the end of the movie and Caruso was deathly ill. He was backstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with blood streaming from his mouth. Mario Lanza was spitting blood into a towel but even so he was shoving aside his entourage. He was going back onstage. The crowd was calling.
I leaned close to the television and Mario Lanza sang “Celeste Aida.”
Then the Great Caruso was dead. In the movie he died like Gary Cooper in the role of Lou Gehrig. Caruso was the luckiest man in the world. They buried him with the kings of Italy.
The next day at four o’clock I tuned in again, hoping for something musical. Instead I heard John Wayne vow to kill Montgomery Clift. Then there was the tremendous thunder of a cattle stampede.
I could tell at once there was something beautiful here: two men vowing to kill one another and the cattle gone wild.
John Wayne talked like a bandsaw. He pushed his syllables with a firm resolve that sounded flat but was sharp at the edges. I knew this voice because I’d practiced it myself. It’s the voice of all kids who grow up alone. You talk to the dark. You take it in and spit it out and you just decide you know what you’re talking about because no one else is ever going to help you. And the cattle bellowed behind him as he vowed to kill Montgomery Clift.
There were gunshots and then there were Indians and more gunshots. Then there were familiar voices: Walter Brennan was the old man in charge of the ramshackle cook wagon. John Wayne was going mad on the cattle drive. His voice was like a soft fever. Montgomery Clift was young and full of wholesomeness. Walter Brennan knew about men going crazy on cattle drives, though his wisdom was ignored because he sounded like a parrot.
I ate Swedish rye crackers with pickled herring and listened to John Wayne talk like a madman. His voice was all thistles and bourbon. He was swaying in the bodega, and leaning on his every syllable. For a week the local TV station showed John Wayne movies at four: The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Alamo. I liked how John Wayne could hesitate and then fall into a mood: playing Davy Crockett, he would suddenly admire the branches of a tree. It was his way of telling Flaca, played by Linda Cristal, that he knew he was going to die.
It was “la mort de Crockett”—a fit song for Berlioz.
In the schoolyard even stinky Jerry admired my ability to imitate “the Duke.” I had the catch in the voice, that Puritan bafflement in the face of true emotion. I talked like a madman. “Them your shoes?” I said to Jerry, then added: “A man shouldn’t die in boots like those.” Jerry and the playground boys ate this up.
Around this time my mother had an accident while entering a supermarket. The automatic door failed as she was crossing the threshold and the full weight of the slamming door struck her elbow. She fell against a window with a terrible crack. I was just a few steps ahead of her and I heard the sequenced sounds of the door and elbow and then her torso hitting the plate glass. I was fascinated by radio sound effects and knew that the noise of her body hitting the window sounded exactly like a dropped bag of apples. Then there was a gasp—her gasp, different from any cry I’d ever heard. When the mallet strikes nerves just right, we are all strangers and all simultaneously familiar. My poor mother! Then I heard a man’s voice call out: “Hey Frank! Tie the damned door open again!” And there were strangers, women mostly, saying “What happened to her?” and the supermarket manager exclaiming that this had happened before and he was sorry. My mother was helped to her feet by the driver of a bread truck. Mr. Wonder Bread to the rescue.
Now she was suing the supermarket and I was going to be her chief witness.
I was so excited! I practiced my John Wayne accents while imagining myself on the stand. And then my mother’s lawyer came to our house and my role in the proceedings was discussed. We sat in our living room and the lawyer snapped open his briefcase and extracted a clean pad of paper. I was immediately thrilled. Jerry and the boys made fun of me almost daily because I insisted on carrying an old leather briefcase to school. It was a fetish. It said that I would be someone in the world beyond the valley.
The lawyer made notes with a fountain pen that sounded like a bird’s feet in the leaves. He wrote while my mother recounted her story. She was wearing a sling and described the elbow surgery she would most likely need. She had some kind of unresponsive fracture. The lawyer asked her lots of medical questions and scratched with the pen. I didn’t know it, but an important moment in my life was about to occur. Like so many signature moments, it would happen without any drama. It would happen in a small suburban living room about fifteen miles south of Albany, New York.
The lawyer spoke about a hypothetical trial. He said that the problem with my mother’s case was that her only witness was blind. “I know Stephen heard everything,” he said, “but the lawyers for the supermarket will say that he can’t be reliable because he couldn’t see what was happening.”
My strange and often silent mother, that is, silent where my blindness was concerned, suddenly said: “He’s got better ears than Leonard Bernstein and a memory for detail that would impress Houdini. So you ought to talk to him.”
And then I was in the cold, clear sky of facts, my favorite place. The lawyer was asking me about listening. I told him what I’d heard in the supermarket and what the store manager had said about the door being broken again. Then the lawyer asked me if I was sure about what I’d heard. I told him how I treated every day like a requiem.
“A what?” said the lawyer, his pen suddenly still.
“A requiem. You know, a musical mass that’s performed when someone famous dies. You can think of a whole day as a kind of musical pattern. Do you know the parts of a requiem?”
The lawyer didn’t know.
“There’s the opening, in memoria aeterna—it sets the mood. Then there’s the Dies Irae and the Tuba mirum and the Judex ergo . . .”
I told him about the sound my mother’s body made when it hit the window.
I told him about the creation of sound effects in a radio studio.
I said that with your eyes closed you could confuse one noise with another unless you really knew the character of a sound. I told him that a snipe rising from the grass sounds different from a pheasant. I was flat out happy, talking about the wilderness of noises and the hours in a day. I was the kid the others liked to smack around. I was the kid the others couldn’t resist liking. I said that Mario Lanza was no Caruso. I said that John Wayne was no Davy Crockett. I said that in all likelihood the real Davy Crockett probably sounded like Walter Brennan.
The lawyer put his pad of paper back in his briefcase and snapped it shut. He said that I could most certainly take the stand. He said suddenly, and with the kind of earnestness that all children hope to receive from adults: “You are the finest listener I’ve ever met. I have learned something here.”
He shook my hand.
I was part of some still-unnamed tribe. But I was in the village.
I was officially something.
I never did have to take the stand. The supermarket settled with my mother out of court. But I was a designated listener, and the status this conferred was, at least to me, the equivalent of a recognizable athletic skill.
When I was fourteen, I discovered the sound of iniquity on a long-playing record for the blind from the Library of Congress. I listened to Paradise Lost, and sometimes after hours of playing the story of Satan I’d walk to the driveway’s edge and feel the elaborate work of sunlight and wind and imagine, the way only a teenager can, the falling of Satan in a blackness so pure you could feel it in the bones of your face.
I’d discovered, without knowing it, the difference between speaking and being. This is what listening is, true listening, the lonely but open mind. I’d discovered the gift of Milton: the soul’s path is in the ear—not in the mirror.
The needle worked its way through long grooves of spoken words. Outside, October sunlight kept trusting God’s plan.
Upstairs my mother slept with the shades drawn. She drank too much.
The needle scratched. And John Milton promised a flight straight toward badness:
To do aught good never will be our task,
I listened beside a window and just outside the last of the autumn crickets sang. I thought of their song as a little chorus of the good. Somewhere above me a hornet worked its way along the ceiling. In the meantime Satan passed through the kingdom of the dead on his way to the Garden of Eden.
I’d entered the netherworlds of John Milton by accident. A substitute music teacher appeared one day in my Albany, New York, junior high school. He was wildly implausible: a Miltonist from Mississippi, nearly seventy, with a voice like Red Barber. He didn’t know a thing about music. He stood before a wide room that was filled with band instruments and a dozen or so teenage boys. He stood stock-still before us. He stared us down. And we, who had been writhing in our seats, we stopped moving. Then he recited:
Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
The room was hot. It was early afternoon. All the boys had eaten too much lunch. Each of us was toxic with hormones and our dramas of digestion. Now here was this voice, this presence really, unforeseen, peculiar, at once both soft and hard—a voice from the seventeenth century, a voice that could pronounce words like “blissful” and give them true shape—a voice that could easily suggest contempt for middle flight. He talked and I was gone somehow. The whole room was gone. We were in the smoke of jargon. And he went on reciting. Until we began to sense that something was vastly different about this hour after lunch.
He stopped and looked us over. No one said a thing. There was only the sound of traffic outside on Washington Avenue.
“That’s Paradise Lost by John Milton,” he said, “a blind poet from England in the 1600s. He knew the affairs of good and evil in humankind.”
He knew how to say “affairs” and “humankind”—the lilt that comes with half a dipthong, that circular softness in the vowel.
He also could say good and evil and mean it. He was perfectly strange and he had our attention for a little while. He was not of our lives.
Soon enough we would consider him crazy.
It was 1969. Our lives were pure play. We listened to Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. The high school next door was shut down at least once a week by a bomb scare.
This man named Mercer who sounded as though he had stepped from the pages of The Sound and the Fury, this fevered man spoke about good and evil in what should have been a music class. And he read to us about the fiery circumference of hell and I’m sure that more than one of us fell asleep to that voice that hummed like bees in an orchard.
To do aught good never will be our task,
Boys love good and evil in stories, and for a time Mr. Mercer made Satan so very real that we slipped, intact, into Milton’s varied planes of action and being. Outside of class we’d joke of course. We’d mime the man’s gestures and wave the invisible book for emphasis. I worked on imitating his voice. I overdid it with elaborate lifts of vowels but I captured a little of the madness just as once I’d managed to imitate John Wayne gone mad on a cattle drive. That was my way. And damned if I didn’t feel evil while doing it. It was a masturbatory guilt I felt. It’s possible that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also adolescent and the art is steeped in shame. And therefore it is addictive. And this is the origin of irony, and when we’re really thinking we never forget the first time we understood it.
Mercer was, as previously noted, all fever. Not one of us comprehended what he was up to. What had begun as a novelty, Milton read aloud with a southern flair, became quickly a tyranny. Fourteen-year-olds know nothing of administration and lack the confidence to seek official redress, and so we sat through two full weeks of Milton and during all that time Mr. Mercer never once mentioned music. Soon enough he was just another insane adult in our eyes. He read aloud and we returned to swiveling in our chairs and cursing just below Mercer’s level of hearing. One of us practiced smoking with an unlit Pall Mall. Mercer would sometimes stop reading and talk about the human joy of doing evil and the higher virtues of resistance. I thought I heard in his voice something that was of course intangible but real, something sincere. At moments as he read I felt I was racing into space. I realized also that John Milton was indeed a musical figure, and what’s more, that Milton, or was it Mercer, could make me feel transparent.
I found that when alone I wanted to puzzle this out. Was it Mercer or Milton who could do this thing to me? I ordered Paradise Lost from the library for the blind and when it arrived in its immense black carton I raced to my record player. I needed to hear Milton read aloud by someone who was not Mercer, someone who was not obviously pushing his own heart around the indifferent room.
The words from the machine came as blue and tense syllables.
The voice on the record was more sonorous than Mercer’s, a Brahmin voice. I saw quickly that this didn’t matter. Milton could join you with the air and with the held breath of vengeance. Old Satan was going to fly out of Hell and mess with Man and I could go with him and feel my blood washing against the whiteness of creation. I knew that Mercer was onto something.
Years later, when I was studying the craft of poetry writing at the University of Iowa, I told the poet Donald Justice how I listened all alone to Milton on records and felt my own little soul bumping along the roof of my skull. Don was quite likely the best-read poet of his generation and he understood loneliness in childhood, and he said that only Milton could put God’s breath into punctuation. I knew that Don was right: Milton holds you in the air and holds you and holds you until you feel your own pulse.
In the schoolroom, meanwhile, things were going to pieces. Mercer was determined to read us the whole of Paradise Lost and boys interrupted him demanding to be allowed to go to the rest-room. Mercer was indignant. “Please,” one boy cried, “I need to freshen my lipstick!” Mercer’s voice trembled with calm. We were to use the restroom before class began. Fluorescent lights buzzed over our heads. And the legs of chairs were scraped rhythmically on the old linoleum. There was no relief for Mercer and none for us. He read on as we threw books to the floor. There was flatulence. Spitballs struck thighs and cheekbones.
Pitiable Mercer! He was in love with Paradise Lost—in love, learned and lost . . .
He read on in spite of us and Milton’s serpent explained to Eve how he came to speak like humankind:
Mercer read and we cried out, repeating “savory odor blown!” “Sex!” “Teats!” “Unsuckt!”
And Mercer’s voice went on, his tone rueful, his diction numbingly precise . . .
At home I listened alone, sliding in the unhaphazard intelligence of John Milton, transformed by the weird charts of emotion and grasping at the language.
What else did I know? I’d been listening to recorded books or discovering sounds while alone from my earliest days. I could find patterns in street noises and listen at night to my mother’s footsteps as she walked the house—sometimes walking until it was nearly dawn.
It was October and unseasonably hot. The Beatles sang “Come Together” and no one was together in the ambient spaces where I listened.
My father had become a college president and the dormitories at the university were firebombed the week he took office. The state police came to our house and looked through our flower garden with metal detectors. My father was in a shadow and he rarely came out. Sometimes he fought with my mother late at night. It seemed he hardly noticed her. It seemed she hated his career.
The world was cruel and driven by appetites. No one was fulfilled. Listening through walls or to the grooves of records, I was getting it—there were actions one couldn’t take back. It was the difference between speaking and being. Milton’s Eve didn’t seem to know the difference. My classmates didn’t get it either. People listened for confirmation rather than the harder things. The air outside was warm as a bath. I was alone with my ridiculous records. I could see Adam and Eve, white as bone. I played passages over again, lifting the heavy tone arm of the record machine and dropping it on the spinning record. I held my nearly disembodied head and sometimes I even held my breath.
Then Mercer was gone. He disappeared from class the same week the New York Mets defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, and accordingly the boys didn’t have any leftover curiosity about what might have happened to him. He was replaced by a college girl with long braids and granny glasses who encouraged us to bring our favorite pop-music records to class for group discussion. We were going to listen for confirmation. I’d begun to figure out what people meant by “relevance” and I knew I wasn’t up to it.
One kid played Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence.” Another guy played Sly and the Family Stone. We were free to be straightforward and hopelessly sincere. Someone played the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Soon it would be my turn to bring my favorite pop record to class and the prospect gave me “the fan-tods,” as Huck Finn would say. I liked rock and roll plenty and could have produced some vintage Sam Cooke or something by the Yardbirds, but the prospect of talking about Eric Clapton was disagreeable—I knew how this would go. Someone would shout “Who’s better, Clapton or Hendrix?” and things would devolve from there into a discussion of rock guitar supremacy and it would become a free-for-all.
But I was a longtime cutoff listener. I could identify the call of a purple finch without confusing him with a thrush. I enjoyed the songs of Hector Berlioz and at the same time I loved the Marx Brothers in the movie Monkey Business. When Harpo tries to pass himself off to French customs officials as Maurice Chevalier by brandishing Chevalier’s stolen passport and wearing a Victrola on his back, well, that’s art, then and now, and I was lucky enough to know it even though I was still too inexperienced to guess if I would find a way in the world of style. I knew that much. Things seen and heard are not the same.
Then it was my turn. I lugged my enormous Library of Congress talking-book record machine into school and carried it up three flights of stairs to the classroom. The voice from the speaker was deeper than Mercer’s and it was gloomy. And no one laughed because the show was unanticipated. I said that Adam and Eve were now being banished from the garden because they couldn’t distinguish between what they’d wanted to hear and what they already understood to be the truth.
The needle rasped at the paper label for a moment.
I picked up the tone arm and held the record up like an Olympic discus. “There’s Braille on the label because this record is for blind people,” I said. “Can you imagine how solitary John Milton must have been in the days when there was no Braille and no blind person could read a book without help? He had to listen to voices. He had to figure out who was telling the truth without seeing their faces.”
There was a long silence. I was in the midst of people whose ways were not my own. I was alone with the spirits of Milton and the vanished Mercer.
Then it was the next kid’s turn to play a record. I sat down and listened to “Aquarius” by the Fifth Dimension.
I thought of Mercer reading aloud while the class whispered.
I liked the way he did that. I could tell that I liked it more than I at first supposed. I was comfortable in a room of words recited, brief though such visits may sometimes be.