Sunday, September 11, 2005

Symphony for Life

I was born in the rumble of the city, beneath the elevated rail, beside the gassy bus, above the bright yellow taxi cab, shrink-wrapped in checkerboard. I was born in the spring of Chicago, a crumpling between cold and hot, a defrosting of the grimy streets at dawn. I was born in a nondescript hospital room, cinder-blocked walls, a cross over the bed, a doctor, a nurse, a wailing woman. The room had a window; the woman insisted on a window. Through the grimy panes came the faded city sunlight that morn, and as Barber’s Adagio for Strings grows with strength, so did the sunlight as I emerged from the cave of fertility. I was born unto light, in the simple white linens of sanitary bedding, between the gristle bone and blood of my mother.

She heard ringing in her ears, the tonal eclipse of fifty sopranos belting out the fondest notes, the final chords of harmony as I was wrapped in cloth and brought to her breast. And the very end came for her as I lay across her chest, searching the pale light for my mother’s eyes. They closed in a bird’s eye movement, settling shut, pianissimo. Quietly, my mother died as the sun reached the highest point in heaven and I was shuttled away, a babe, just wondering, just barely wondering…where did she go? Where did that life go?

Now, I imagine she alit from the window, soaring high above the brownstones, the traffic, the messengers, the clergyman, the tired trees in metal rods, the skyscrapers, the Gold Coast, Navy Pier, Wrigley Field. She flew above and grew wings and celestial creatures beckoned, and she never looked back at me, the bundle of nothingness left behind.

She is buried near my apartment. I tell myself this is coincidence, merely. A one-bedroom at such a good cost, sublet from a symphony flutist, with crown molding (original) and claw-footed bathtub. I do not allow myself to look East to the skyline, to the grave, to the last bed of the first woman who abandoned me.

There are many women in beds who have abandoned me, but my mother was the initial cause—the alpha of disappointment, of rejection. And so, reclusive I have become, a detective of light, a miserable loner, a reed of a young man.

I spent the last few years of teenage angst in a group home for orphans. I lived with a fat Italian kid, Rich, and five black brothers (in the literal sense; their mother left them all at once on the steps of St. Mark’s Church, Evanston). The brothers’ names, from oldest to youngest: Sorrel, Johnson, Cyrus, Lyle, Nehemiah. Nehemiah, contradictorily, is the tallest of the five. Cyrus is the smartest. Lyle is the funniest. Sorrel is the leader. And Johnson was vacant-eyed slow. Johnson is no more. He died last winter; Sorrel called and informed me. He sluggishly existed until he slovenly wandered in front of a taxi-cab. He died several days later, in a slow fashion that prevailed throughout his life. The brothers four remained, clutching one another in a tight grip, a huddle, a pool of sadness for Johnson. A limb had been severed from the body. I went to the funeral and saw the brothers stand, a united front. No open casket. Flowers were few and faded; the brothers begged the chapel for gifts. Johnson was buried in simple wood. He lies not far from my mother.

Rich eats a lot; he comes over on Saturday nights and we get take-out pizza. We go from family-owned pizzeria to pizzeria, trying to deliberate.
-Is Johnny’s better?
-You can’t think so. Johnny’s fuckin’ Irish.
-I’m sayin’. I like Johnny’s.
-Take it from a wop. A wop makes a better pizza than a mick. Fuckin’ mick, he fuckin’ learned pizza from a wop. It’s a lie.
Rich still eats Johnny’s pizza. He gets mad because I’m Irish. Shocked red hair, freckles, skinny body, potato head. Rich is short and fat and squeamish about his clothes. Every oversized shirt is perfectly ironed, every expensive sneaker, wiped with damp rags.

After Rich leaves, I open the window. Somehow, the lake wind gets in here, this apartment facing the wrong way, and the breeze spins up the curtains in a lazy way, and I watch the sky, or the condensed water on my glass drip down. Entropy. I miss my mother.

The record player is old; the needle needs replacing. But my mother; she left me these few items. The record player, the needle, the albums, the vinyl. She told the nurse on that morning:
-See that he gets them.
She waved to the items in the corner. Three boxes. Maria Callas, Mozart, Bach, Barber, Handel, Strauss, Wagner (how I hate Wagner), Beethoven, Pachabel. Requiems. Misere’s. Albums and albums of Oxford Choir, Westminster. Evensongs. A whole church library of religious music. The boxes have followed me for twenty six years, each tatter a memory, each new scratch delivered an epic history. My whole life in those boxes my mother gave me.

On Sundays, I open the window wider and place the record player beneath the sill. The records spin. The children love Gershwin. The little girls twist their hips to the atonal qualities of his rhapsodies like they are dancing to hip-hop. The old men sit in the alley and smoke pipes, mumbling at the music, complaining. I know they enjoy it; otherwise, on the hottest of summer, these men would not sit on the stoops or overturned crates to hear the music and watch the children. It brings the old men joy to complain, to have the right to complain. And beneath the elevated rail, we listen to the hymns of the choirs of majesty, or the trinkles of Irish ballads. The solitary wail of the first Soprano.

I bring this world music. This is a slice of my life, just one tiny gift. When the sky opens wide its maw to swallow me as it gulped my mother, I will leave behind this legacy. Three boxes of music, of vinyl, of sacred broken needles and abandoned jazz trios.

Then, one moment, it is Sunday and the little alley is teeming with life. Next, she is there. A porcelain doll, but real and fleshed out. Her forehead is wide, her face is long, she has lashes curling over her round cheeks. What is she, Slavic? German? Asian? I can’t tell, but I see the part in her waxen black hair. It zigs simply over her crown, a river of browns and blacks and reds. There is so much depth to her bearing, I could dive from the sill into her heart. She is looking up at me now, her eyes pools of darkness, her skin the shade of paper lanterns. And now, I am home. Her adornment is simple. One thin tattoo wrapped around one ankle. One bracelet. One sheath of a dress, no pattern. Sandals. Smooth skin and the smell (I imagine) of linen and soap. Our gazes will not break; she is enthralled with my crystal blue eyes, my speckled face, my lean arms and bony shoulders. And she hears the music drifting and wafting.

The children have stopped playing and observe this springtime ritual. The little girls are impatient to grow older and have men look at their eyes in the same manner. The little boys scratch their heads and throw balls to one another. The old men have seen this before and cluck to one another. I go down the stairs, letting the music continue to play.
We meet. Simply, we duck into each other like fallout victims in shelter. This time, we promise one another, will be different.

I take her to my mother’s grave the next Sunday. I lean down to the gravestone, and plant my lips on the granite of my mother. She is still silent. But Hannah folds her hands in front of her and smiles her funny little smile.
-She is a loud ghost
-I never hear her, and I am her son
-She is loud to me. Her singing is everywhere.
-I never hear her.
Hannah sighs and looks far off; she is listening to my mother.
I am so jealous of Hannah during these times, but I trust her to convey to my mother my happiness in this new find of love.

The brothers meet us at Johnny’s. Rich comes in, jeans creased, jersey shining. Cyrus is yelling for cold beer. Nehemiah has to put his feet in the aisle as his legs are too long to fit underneath the table
-Short micks, he says.
-Shut up, I say.
Rich cusses the pizza until the owner’s wife glares at him. Rich falls silent. Sorrel says something about Johnson, how he talked to all the stray cats. We laugh and remember him. Johnson is now my mother’s new pet, I am sure. She keeps him from running into the highways of souls.
Lyle talks about politics. No one listens. Hannah lays her head on my shoulder and I see all about me, the angels of dead composers have drifted over to our table. Our music is the loudest orchestra. Our movements include all brass, wind, string, timpani.

And then, there is only Chopin, at night, during candles and Hannah’s skin. There is the shadow played on each crease of skin, each hair, each fleck of desire. Only then do I see my mother, and hear her. She is smiling, and Hannah gasps in the glow of candle. It is these tiny staccato beats I hear in her skin that I desire. It is the flap of earlobe, the crest of her nose, the smattering of moles on her chest, the aureoles of pink.

As the candle burns down, these nights, I hear the rumble of the city that birthed me, and I lay my palm on Hannah’s back, and drink in the shimmering lights glancing off the puddles in the alley. The record stops playing, and Hannah’s breathing evens.. There is only the sound of needle against groove. I am my mother’s final movement; acknowledging her presence and her absence, I lean over and kiss Hannah, and we are left with darkness and each other.


Blogger Spinning Girl said...


This is absolutely fantastic!!!!!


Really, really, really.

5:35 PM  
Blogger FRITZ said...

Hey, thanks! Just a something story that came up while listening to Barber's Adagio for Strings.

I only write with music.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Spinning Girl said...

I just read it again. I can see the Walt Whitman influence. Fritz, poet, I Sing!

8:26 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

Holy crap. No, really, holy crap. I'm amazed. -Steps back to get better view- Outstanding.

11:06 PM  
Blogger FRITZ said...

Wow...Justin...thanks for reading the whole thing and being so supportive. I'm always amazed when people find my writing good, because I've written my whole life but I've NEVER shared it so publicly.

So, thanks you guys for taking a moment to read this. Thank you so much. It means a lot to me. Reading your comments makes me think: maybe I have a shot at writing.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Think Frustrated said...

I was linked to this story from Spinning Girl's site, whom I was linked to through another site (talk about a long path). I, too, am a writer. Looking at your story (looking at it:reading it, feeling it, seeing it, watching it move, etc), I am very impressed. I actually thought to myself, "So this is how a good writer writes." I think I'm OK, but this story was a little symphony of words. Although, like Spinning Girl said, there was Whitman there, I had that Hemmingway feel because it seems like you labored over each word, choosing the exact right one, like notes in a song. I applaud you. Get an agent. If you ever have time, check out my site, browse through the archives (only a few months) and let me know what you think. Again, bravo!

1:40 PM  

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