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THE YEAR OF SILENCE
By Madison Smartt Bell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Madison Smartt Bell
All rights reserved.
THE YEAR OF SILENCE
Every weekday morning after Weber left for school Tom Larkin would set up the practice board; that was the first thing he did when he got out of bed. He could sleep later than Weber, who had to rise at six in order to get uptown in time for his eight o'clock bell, but most mornings he was awake as early just the same, lying in his small cubicle listening to the shuffle of Weber's preparations until the door clicked shut behind him. It was a very small apartment but Weber had arrived at some sense of space by keeping the living room stripped virtually bare. The practice board had folding legs that Larkin had appropriated from a card table and sawed off to the proper height, and he kept it stored in a closet when it was not in use. After he set up the board he posed a chair in front of it and then left the room, to make coffee or take a shower or sometimes only to create a pause, an interval during which he would remind himself again that faith might indeed move mountains. After this he would return to the front room, hesitating for a half beat on the threshold like someone preparing for a leap, then cross the floor as if crossing a stage and sit down and begin.
He had made the practice board himself, though ordinarily he had little skill with such things, digging out the edges of each key with a gutter-shaped sculptor's instrument he had borrowed and then smoothing out the edges with a little rasp. He'd blackened all the sharps and flats with shoe polish and left the others unstained; by now their light pine color had deepened and taken on a patina from the oils of his hands. It was a standard keyboard, with nothing lacking but the body of the instrument, flexion of the keys, and sound.
Because it was the least inconvenient spot, Larkin set up the practice board against the row of long mirrors Weber had attached to the apartment's single unencumbered wall. Weber was a fanatic practitioner of some kind of karate, and daily upon his return from the high school where he taught he would perform its crisp movements before the rank of mirrors, installed not for the sake of vanity but simply to correct mistakes. Under ordinary circumstances Weber was graceless and frequently bumped into things, but he had an attitude toward his own flesh which Larkin had known elsewhere only among dancers: a divorcement of the body from any sense of self, a dispassionate regard of it as the material of which the work is to be made. The force of his concentration hung around the room like an aura, mingling no doubt with whatever humors Larkin's own exertions could raise.
Every morning of every working day he applied himself to the cool architectonics of the Goldberg Variations, the centerpiece of the recital he was due to give at Alice Tully Hall in roughly three months' time. He played methodically, fingers slapping against the divisions of the plank with rigor, facing himself in the mirrors. His face was round and dark, a little owlish, and otherwise unremarkable and unmemorable by his own private judgment. His expression rarely changed at all during his long practice sessions; always it was tranquil and detached, though he had things to think about that might well have made him writhe. The Lincoln Center debut was the break of his career, would very likely determine whether he would have a real career or not, and it was just one whisker short of certifiable insanity to prepare for it by practicing on an immobile block of wood.
Conceivably there was a strain of madness running in his family. That was a notion which frequently occurred to him while his hands worked contrapuntally up and down the keyboard: he might be prone to whatever germ of craziness had turned his older brother into a hermit and finally, it would seem, had dropped him off the face of the earth. It had been just slightly over a year since Clarence Larkin had vanished altogether out of the Brooklyn slum in which he was reported to be living. The disappearance had brought Tom Larkin home from Europe, where he'd been studying after a tour. At first he'd hoped to find his brother alive and well, but later even discovering a body would have been a comfort.
In the second month, when the search was flagging, when the officials involved had completely lost interest and his parents had subsided into a dreary lack of further expectation, Larkin had decided to take a vow. The idea was so completely unlike him and sufficiently like his brother to be quite appropriate for the circumstances. Nominally, the intention was to purchase his brother's return at the price of his own mortification, though in his rational mind Larkin never believed that it would work. But at the worst it would provide his own uncertainty with a terminal point. When the year was out he could play the piano again and begin to grieve.
Until then, practice meant the rap-tap of his finger ends on pine. The Lincoln Center engagement had come up after the vow was in effect and Larkin did not believe it was enough excuse to break it. By a coincidence of dates he could have two weeks to practice on a sounding keyboard. Of course that was hardly enough time to accomplish anything much. But meanwhile, the fingering was everything, wasn't it? Larkin's face remained solemn and remote in the mirror, betraying no hint of the lunatic laughter that rocked him within. He was a fool, there was no doubt about it, but lately he had discovered that he enjoyed being a fool and that it gave him a sense of contentment unknown to him before he had become one.
Last year he had had a music teacher, a stern old German, blocky and bald as a brick wall, who had finally told him in a fit of temper that he would never be a great concert performer because he liked music too much. "You like listening to yourself," the old man had said, "and that's nothing but a distraction. It's not your job to enjoy it."
Larkin paused at the end of the slow twenty-fifth Variation and wiped a trace of sweat from his temples and his upper lip. Hope you're satisfied now, he thought at his teacher. It's hard to imagine enjoying this.
He resumed playing, his fingertips traveling through intricate interlocking patterns on the keys. There was no harm in foolishness, he believed, but the prospect of madness worried him a little. He had heard no music for almost as long as he'd stopped playing, only a Janis Joplin grab-bag tape that Weber liked to play over and over, and occasionally someone's boom box passing by on the street outside. No real music—listening made him want to play, a desire he already had trouble enough suppressing. But almost every morning of late, during the gap he always contrived between setting up the board and sitting down before it, he caught himself in the expectation that when he began to practice today each note would sound aloud.
And that was truly crazy.
Larkin played on, looking vaguely past his reflection in the mirror. He had all thirty variations down by heart and needed no sheet music. From the windows behind him came the rush of tires over pavement, ceasing and beginning again. A car door banged and a voice called out something indistinct, followed by a long sharp whistle. Farther away a musical klaxon reiterated the opening bar of "La Cucaracha." Someone was clumping slowly up the stairwell of the building, pausing now and again to rest. In Weber's kitchen the hot water tap was irregularly dripping. Larkin's hands raced over the keyboard, each movement dislodging a minute chip of silence. Silent and invisible, delicately balanced as a card house, an unheard music of the mind rose all around him.
In the dark of his little room Larkin lay staring up at where his ceiling was. In Weber's room across the hall a pair of guitars screeched to a halt and Joplin began to squall out the first verse of "Ball and Chain." Weber had been fixed on this particular tape ever since Larkin had moved in. He frequently asked Larkin if it disturbed him, and Larkin always said that it did not, which was the truth."
A chink of light from a street lamp below stood in the highest corner of the room, which had little floor space but a rather high ceiling, so that it resembled nothing so much as an absurdly deep coffin, or so Larkin sometimes thought. His mattress covered the floor entirely, lapping from baseboard to baseboard, and in the morning he had to fold it back in order to open the door. There was a lamp clipped to the window ledge and a closet, and that was all. However, Larkin paid only about a fourth of Weber's rent and he couldn't afford much better quarters anywhere. The height of the ceiling was sufficient to keep claustrophobia at bay and the wedge of light which hung on the wall gave him something to look at through the long nights when he could not sleep. He had that and Janis Joplin, muted through the two closed doors, for company.
Weber had been a bit queer for just about a year now, ever since his girlfriend had died in unlucky circumstances of one kind or another. Larkin knew little about it because he'd been in Europe for quite a long time and hadn't known the woman. Weber was a friend from college and Larkin hadn't found him obviously changed on his return, only a little more taciturn than before, more moody. It was thought by several other friends, however, that Weber would be better off not living alone, and he himself had offered the compartment with its low rent at a time when Larkin would have done almost anything to get out of the gathered gloom of his parents' house. They'd proved compatible enough, though each tended to go his separate way.
Except for the Janis Joplin fetish Weber was much the same as ever: quiet and almost suspiciously controlled. But he'd developed a rather curious drinking pattern. About one night a week he'd come in with a pint of vodka which he'd ceremoniously offer first to Larkin, who did not drink at all because his brother had. Then Weber would drink most of the vodka himself, rapidly but with apparent distaste, like an unpleasant medicine self-administered. He drank out of a little glass, tilting his head to one side like a bird. The vodka was always a cue for a long loud night of Joplin, after Weber had disappeared behind his own door, and by now Larkin had memorized every pulse and gesture of the tape, the awkward grinding drive of the guitars and keyboards and that voice strained to the breaking point and beyond it.
They were always a little off-beat and a little off-key but the music had grown on him and he had a taste for it now, notwithstanding the endless repetitions. At the worst it was something to fill up the insomniac nights. Since the new year he had slept very badly and now they were well into March. It was a devil's choice because if he did sleep he had long tortured nightmares in which he followed his brother toward some catastrophe or other, often merging identities with him, in the way of dreams. Without sleep he became disoriented and the hours of practice were a hardship to get through. Also, he had begun to hear voices when he lay awake in his little room, though they didn't have much to say to him, only, sometimes, his name. Joplin's ravings would at least drive those to ground and for that Larkin was grateful.
The Goldberg Variations had originally been written to beguile sleep, and Baron von Kayserling had rewarded Bach with a hundred pieces of gold for the work. Larkin might have paid as much for a night without dreams or voices, supposing he had had it. But he had begun to think of it as a bloodless piece of music, for all its manifold beauties, and played in silence it made a very thin diet indeed. Larkin looked up at the light on the wall. Tonight was the night of the two hundred and eighty-sixth day; seventy-nine were left to go. Swollen with the headlights of a passing car, the scrap of light raced all around the upper edges of the room and then returned to its original position. It hung there under Larkin's scrutiny through all the watches of night and withered and began to fade out into the first morning of the spring.
"Sleep well?" Weber said. He was sitting at a little end table pushed against the kitchen window, contemplating two fried eggs on a plate before him. A grammar text and a grade book lay on the table at his elbow.
"Fine," Larkin said. Their household harmony was founded on such courteous lies as this. He edged around the corner of the table into the kitchen and tilted the espresso pot from the stove to check its contents. Half a cup, cooling. The first taste of the coffee set his head spinning, reminding him how badly he was starved for sleep.
"Aren't you running a little late, Weber?"
"I called in sick." Silhouetted against the window, Weber's arm rose and fell, working his fork. Sunlight from the window glared all around his form, so that his edges seemed to shimmer. Blinking, Larkin went to the corner of the table and sat with his back to the light.
"A nice day, too," Weber said brightly. He reached behind him and set his plate down on the edge of the sink and scooted his chair out from the table.
Larkin closed his eyes and opened them again. A current of lively air ran in under the raised sash of the window; Weber was right, it was a nice day. Larkin looked at him. He seemed weirdly chipper, though the rims of his eyes were red. Larkin checked the trash can at his feet and spotted the Smirnoff pint on the top; he'd got through the whole thing this time.
Weber drummed his fingers on the edge of the table and then withdrew his hands to his belt.
"Too pretty a day to just sit around," he said. "I'm going for a walk, I think, up on the bridge maybe. You want to go?
Larkin wagged his head, heavy as a wrecking ball. "Don't think I'm quite awake yet," he said. "I might follow you ..."
"Sure," Weber said. "See you." He stood up and picked up his jacket from the floor of the front room and went out.
Outside, the steady chatter and bustle of people in the street went on, and underneath it an incongruous twittering of birds. It had been some time, Larkin thought, since he had noticed birdsong. As much as anything else the sounds and the way they carried were a sign of spring. Then there was the curious new feel of the air; it was still cool but the chill was off it, and it was charged with metamorphic possibility.
Larkin spread his fingers and let the draft coming across the windowsill play over them. His elbow brushed his cup and knocked it over and he sat there for a moment watching the milky coffee purl over the rim of the cup onto the waxy surface of the table, creeping toward Weber's school books. No, I'm not in the best of shape, he thought. A rivulet approached the edge of the table and with a forced burst of energy he got up and snatched a paper towel and cleaned up all the mess. Then he went into the front room, wavered, and plopped down on a cushion underneath the row of windows there.
Normally Larkin observed weekends and didn't practice Saturday or Sunday, unless maybe he felt like it or there was nothing else to do. Though it was only Friday, Weber's taking the day off made him a little envious. He looked across the room to the mirrors, but his eyes had come unfocused from fatigue and reported his image back only as a blur, some dark shape crouching there on the floor. Going back to bed would never work, but sometimes he'd been able to fool himself asleep, sitting here or even in a kitchen chair. He shut his eyes and let sleep suck at him, a darkening whirlpool.
... Larkin ...
The voice came wrapped in a swishing sound, like the ocean heard in a seashell. Larkin started onto his feet and looked all around himself, his heart pounding in an unhealthy way. Little gold dots hummed around the edges of his vision and he shook his head to clear it. A walk might not be such a bad plan after all. He put on a sweater and found his keys and went out.
Half a block down Eldridge Street from the building, he turned east on Delancey. The weather was fine and fresh and inspiriting. He bought a coffee through the take-out window of a little coffee shop and drank from it as he walked along, beginning to feel considerably more lucid. From Orchard Street on east the Spanish stores spilled out over the sidewalk with bins of bargain clothes and gewgaws. Amidst the crowd ahead of him Larkin saw Weber standing with his bony wrists crossed in front of him, staring open-mouthed into the window of a discount electronics store. Larkin came nearer without changing his pace and Weber turned away without seeing him and went on.
Excerpted from THE YEAR OF SILENCE by Madison Smartt Bell. Copyright © 1987 Madison Smartt Bell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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