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"Huh?" Michael Perrin twitched in his sleep. An uncertain number of tall white forms stood around his bed, merging with the walls, the dresser, the bookcases and easels.
He's not very impressive.
Michael rolled over and rubbed his nose. His short sandy hair tousled up against his pillow. His thick feathery red eyebrows pulled together as if in minor irritation, but his eyes stayed shut.
Look deeper. Several of the forms bent over him.
He's only a man-child.
Yet he has the hallmark.
What's that? Throwing his talents in all directions instead of concentrating? Never quite able to make up his mind what he is going to be? A ghostly arm waved at the easels and bookcases, at the desk swamped with ragged-edged notebooks, chewed pencils, and scraps of paper.
Indeed. That is the hallmark, or one of—
The alarm clock went off with a hideous buzz. Michael jerked upright in bed and slapped his hand over the cutoff switch, hoping his parents hadn't heard. He sleepily regarded the glowing green numbers: twelve-thirty in the morning. He picked up his watch to check. "Damn." The clock was eight minutes late. He only had twenty-two minutes.
He rolled out of bed, kicking a book of Yeats' poems across the floor with one bare foot. He swore under his breath and felt for his pants. The only light he dared use was the Tensor lamp on his desk. He pushed aside the portable typewriter to let the concentrated glow spread farther and spilled a stack of paperbacks on the floor. Bending over to pick them up, he smacked his head on the edge of the desk.
Teeth clenched, Michael grabbed his pants from the back of the chair and slipped them on. One leg on and the other stuck halfway, he lost balance and steadied himself by pushing against the wall.
His fingers brushed a framed print hung slightly off balance against the lines and flowers of the wallpaper. He squinted at the print—a Bonestell rendition of Saturn seen from one of its closer moons. His head throbbed.
A tall, slender figure was walking across the print's cratered moonscape. He blinked. The figure turned and regarded him as if from a considerable distance, then motioned for him to follow. He scrunched his eyes shut, and when he opened them again, the figure had vanished. "Christ," he said softly. "I'm not even awake yet."
He buckled his belt and donned his favorite shirt, a short-sleeved brown pullover with a V-neck. Socks, gray Hush Puppies and tan nylon windbreaker completed the ensemble. But he was forgetting something.
He stood in the middle of the room, trying to remember, when his eyes lit on a small book bound in glossy black leather. He picked it up and stuffed it in his jacket pocket, zipping the pocket shut. He dug in his pants pocket for the note, found it folded neatly next to the keyholder, and glanced at his watch again. Twelve-forty-five.
He had fifteen minutes.
He trod softly down the wall-edge of the stairs, avoiding most of the squeaks, and ran to the front door. The living room was black except for the digital display on the video recorder. Twelve forty-seven, it said.
He opened and closed the door swiftly and ran across the lawn. The neighborhood streetlights had been converted to sodium-vapor bulbs that cast a sour orange glow over the grass and sidewalk. Michael's shadow marched ahead, growing huge before it vanished in the glare of the next light. The orange emphasized the midnight-blue of the sky, dulling the stars.
Four blocks south, the orange lights ended and traditional streetlamps on concrete posts took over. His father said those lights went back to the 1920s and were priceless. They had been installed when the neighborhood houses had first been built; back then, they had stood on a fancy country road, where movie stars and railroad magnates had come to get away from it all.
The houses were imposing at night. Spanish-style white plaster and stucco dominated, some two stories tall with enclosures over the side driveways. Others were woodsy, shake shingles on walls and roofs, with narrow frame windows staring darkly out of dormers.
All the houses were dark. It was easy to imagine the street was a movie set, with nothing behind the walls but hollowness and crickets.
Twelve fifty-eight. He crossed the last intersection and turned to face his destination. Four houses down and on the opposite side of the street was the white plaster single-story home of David Clarkham. It had been deserted for over forty years, yet its lawns were immaculately groomed, hedges trimmed, stucco walls spotless, and Spanish wood beams unfaded. Drawn curtains in the tall arched windows hid only emptiness—or so it was reasonable to assume. Being reasonable hadn't brought him here, however.
For all he knew, the house could be crammed with all manner of things ... incredible, unpleasant things.
He stood beneath the moon-colored streetlight, in the shadow of a tall, brown-leafed maple, folding and unfolding the paper in his pants pocket with one sweaty hand.
One o'clock in the morning. He wasn't dressed for adventure. He had the instructions, the book and the leather keyholder with its one old brass key; what he lacked was conviction.
It was a silly decision to have to make. The world was sane; such opportunities didn't present themselves. He withdrew the paper and read it for the hundredth time:
"Use the key to enter the front door. Do not linger. Pass through the house, through the back door and through the side gate to the front door of the neighboring house on the left, as you face the houses. The door to that house will be open. Enter. Do not stop to look at anything. Surely, quickly, make your way to the back of the house, through the back door again, and across the rear yard to the wrought-iron gate. Go through the gate and turn to your left. The alley behind the house will take you past many gates on both sides. Enter the sixth gate on your left."
He folded the note and replaced it. What would his parents think, seeing him here, contemplating breaking and entering—or, at the very least, entering without breaking?
"There comes a time," Arno Waltiri had said, "when one must disregard the thoughts of one's parents, or the warnings of old men; when caution must be put temporarily aside and instincts followed. In short, when one must rely on one's own judgment ..."
Michael's parents gave parties renowned throughout the city. Michael had met the elderly composer Waltiri and his wife, Golda, at one such party in June. The party celebrated the Equinox. ("Late," his mother explained, "because nothing we do is prompt.") Michael's father was a carpenter with a reputation for making fine furniture; he had a wide clientele among the rich and glamorous folk of Los Angeles, and Waltiri had commissioned him to make a new bench for his fifty-year-old piano.
Michael had stayed downstairs for the first hour of the party, wandering through the crowd and sipping a bottle of beer. He listened in while the heavily bearded, gray-haired captain of an ocean liner told a young stage actress of his perilous adventures during World War II, "on convoy in the Western Ocean." Michael's attention was evenly divided between them; his breath seemed to shorten, the woman was so beautiful, and he'd always been interested in ships and the sea. When the captain put an arm around the actress and stopped talking of things nautical, Michael moved on. He sat in a folding chair near a noisy group of newspaper people.
Journalists irritated Michael. They came in large numbers to his parents' parties. They were brash and drank a lot and postured and talked more about politics than writing. When their conversation turned to literature (which was seldom), it seemed all they had ever read was Raymond Chandler or Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Michael tried to interject a few words about poetry, but the conversation stopped dead and he moved on again.
The rest of the party was taken up by a councilman and his entourage, a few businessmen, and the neighbors, so Michael selected a reserve supply of hors d'oeuvres and carried the plate upstairs to his room.
He closed the door and switched on the TV, then sat at his small desk—which he was rapidly outgrowing—and pulled a sheaf of poems from the upper drawer.
Music pounded faintly through the floor. They were dancing.
He found the poem he had written that morning and read it over, frowning. Yet another in a long line of bad Yeats imitations. He was trying to compress the experiences of a senior in high school into romantic verse, and it wasn't working.
Disgusted, he returned the poems to the drawer and poked through the TV channels until he found an old Humphrey Bogart movie. He'd seen it before; Bogart was having woman trouble with Barbara Stanwyck.
Michael's troubles with women had been limited to stuffing love poems into a girl's locker. She had caught him doing it and laughed at him.
There was a soft tap on his door. "Michael?" It was his father.
"You receiving visitors?"
"Sure." He opened the door. His father came in first, slightly drunk, and motioned for an old, white-haired man to follow.
"Mike, this is Arno Waltiri, composer. Arno, my son, the poet."
Waltiri shook Michael's hand solemnly. His nose was straight and thin and his lips were full and young-looking. His grip was strong but not painful. "We are not intruding, I hope?" His accent was indefinite middle-European, faded from years in California.
"Not at all," Michael said. He felt a little awkward. His grandparents had died before he was born. He wasn't used to old people.
Waltiri examined the prints and posters arranged on the walls. He paused before the print of Saturn, glanced at Michael, and nodded. He turned to a framed magazine cover showing insect-like creatures dancing on a beach near wave-washed rocks and smiled. "Max Ernst," he said. His voice was a soft rumble. "You like to visit strange places."
Michael muttered something about never having been anywhere strange.
"He wants to be a poet," his father said, pointing to the bookcases lining the walls. "A packrat. Keeps everything he's read."
Waltiri regarded the television with a critical eye. Bogart painstakingly explained a delicate matter to Stanwyck. "I wrote the score for that one," he said, lips pursed.
Michael brightened immediately. He didn't have much money for records—he spent most of his allowance and summer earnings on books—but he did have a Bee Gees album, a Ricky Lee Jones concert double, and the soundtrack albums for the original King Kong, Star Wars and Citizen Kane. "You did? When was that?"
"Nineteen-forty," Waltiri said. "So long ago, now, but seems much closer. I scored over two hundred films before I retired." Waltiri sighed and turned to Michael's father. "Your son is very diverse in his interests."
Waltiri's hands were strong and broad-fingered, Michael noticed, and his clothing was well-tailored and simple. His slate-gray eyes seemed young. The most unusual thing about him was his teeth, like gray ivory.
"Ruth would like for him to study law," his father said, grinning. "I hear poets don't make much of a living. Still, it beats wanting to be a rock star."
Waltiri shrugged. "Rock star isn't so bad." He put a hand on Michael's shoulder. Usually Michael resented such familiarities, but not this time. "I like impractical people, people who are willing to rely only on themselves. It was very impractical for me to want to become a composer." He sat on Michael's desk chair, hands on his knees, elbows pointed out, staring at the TV. "So very difficult to get anything performed at all, not to mention by a good orchestra. So I followed my friend Steiner to California—"
"You knew Max Steiner?"
He nodded, smiling. "Sometime you must come over to our house, visit Golda and me, perhaps listen to the old scores." At that moment, Waltiri's wife entered the room, a slender, golden-haired woman a few years younger than he. She bore a distinct resemblance to Gloria Swanson, Michael thought, but without the wild look Swanson had had in Sunset Boulevard. He liked Golda immediately.
So it had all begun with music. When his father delivered the piano bench, Michael tagged along. Golda met them at the door, and ten minutes later Arno was guiding them around the ground floor of the two-story bungalow. "Arno loves to talk," Golda told Michael as they approached the music room at the rear of the house. "If you love to listen, you'll get along just fine."
Waltiri opened the door with a key and let them enter first.
"I don't go in here very often now," he said. "Golda keeps it dusted. I read nowadays, play the piano in the front room now and then, but I don't need to listen." He tapped his head. "It's all up here, every note."
The walls on three sides were covered with shelves of records. Waltiri pulled down big lacquered masters from a few of his early films, then pointed out the progression to smaller disks, scores released by record companies on seventy-eights, and finally the long-play vinyl records and CDs Michael was familiar with. For scores composed in the 1950s and '60s, he had tapes neatly labeled and shelved in black-and-white and plaid boxes. "This was my last score," he said, pulling down a bigger tape box. "Half inch stereo eight-track master. For William Wyler, you know. In 1963 he asked me to score Call It Sleep. Not my finest score, but certainly my favorite film."
Michael ran his finger along the tape box labels. "Look! Mr. Waltiri—"
"Arno, please. Only producers call me Mr. Waltiri."
"You did the music for Bogart in The Man Who Would Be King!"
"Certainly. For John Huston, actually. Good score, that one."
"That's my favorite movie," Michael said, awed.
Waltiri's eyes sparkled. For the next two months, Michael spent most of his free time in the Waltiri house, listening to him recite selections on the piano or carefully play the fragile masters of the scores. It had been a wonderful two months, almost a justification for being bookish, something of a loner, buried in his mind instead of hanging out with friends ...
Now Michael stood on the porch of Clarkham's house. He tried the handle on the heavy wooden door: locked, as expected. He removed the key from his pants pocket. It was late for the old neighborhood. There was no street traffic, not even the sound of distant airplanes. Everything seemed to have been muffled in a blanket.
Two months before, on a hot, airless August day, Waltiri had taken Michael up to the attic to look through papers and memorabilia. Michael had exulted over letters from Clark Gable, correspondence with Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a manuscript copy of a Stravinsky oratorio.
"Up here, it feels like it's the forties again," Michael said. Waltiri stared down at lines of light thrown by a wall vent across a stack of boxes and said, "Perhaps it is." He looked up at Michael. "Let's go downstairs and get some iced tea. And on the way, instead of my talking about myself, I would like you to tell me why you want to be a poet."
Sitting on the porch, Michael sipped from his glass and shook his head. "I don't know. Mom says it's because I want to be different. She laughs, but I think she means it." He made a wry face. "As if my folks should worry. They're not your normal middle-class couple." He squinted at Waltiri, who leaned forward, head inclined like a watchful bird. "She might be right. But it's something else, too. When I write poetry, I'm more in touch with being alive. I like living here. I have some friends. But ... it seems so limited. I try hard to find the flavor, the richness, but I can't. There has to be something more." He rubbed his cheek and looked at the fallen magnolia blossoms on the lawn. "Some of my friends just go to the movies. That's their idea of magic, of getting away. I like movies, but I can't live in them."
The composer nodded, his slate-gray eyes focused above the hedges bordering the yard. "You think there's something higher than what we see—or lower—and you want to find it."
"That's it." Michael nodded.
"Are you a good poet?"
"Not very," Michael said automatically.
"No false modesty now." Waltiri wiped condensation from his glass on the knee of his pants.
Michael thought for a moment. "I'm going to be."
"Going to be what?"
"I'm going to be a good poet."
"That's a fine thing to say. Now that you've said it, you know I'll be watching you. You must become a good poet."
Michael grinned ruefully. "Thanks a lot!"
Excerpted from The Infinity Concerto by Greg Bear. Copyright © 1992 Greg Bear. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 11, 2012
I found this book transportive. I have read two paper copies to tatters over the years. Even if you think you don't like Bear's writing give this a go.
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Posted July 5, 2013
I loved this book the first time I read this book and Ths Serpent Mage years ago. I was estatic when it finally came out as an ebook. As great as I remembered it. LOVE LOVE LOVE!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 5, 2013
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