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I have an idea. About my dead uncle.
A chamber opera. Small ensemble, maybe some electronics. Four or five singers doing multiple roles.
No, wait, hear me out.
Uncle Larry went to China when I was five and never came back. We don't even know for sure that he's dead. It's a great story. Or would be, I imagine. If we actually knew what it was.
I just have bits so far: a made-up narrative arc for the second act, a melody half-cribbed from some incidental music that I wrote about five years ago for a local theatre company. An ethereal harmonic progression that I'm sure I'll find a place for. It wants to happen. It nags me in the night, sends me creeping to the kitchen table with a notepad or some music paper just to empty out my head so I can sleep.
Louisa never stirs, even if I'm up three or four times.
We pretty much assume that he's dead, after twenty-five years. Or most of us do.
He isn't even my uncle, really. He's Mama's cousin. Or was, if he's dead. Aunt Jasmine believes he's still alive, but then I guess a mother has to. If he is, though, you'd think he'd have contacted someone by now, no matter how hard it may have been to get letters out of China in the 70s. Or especially now, with the Internet. You'd think he'd have contacted Aunt Jasmine at least.
I used to sneak over to her place sometimes for tea and pastries, and the occasional family story. Stories from Mama's side, that I wasn't supposed to want to know about. She makes these great little pastries called moon cakes. Mama never made moon cakes. Mama was never allowed to make anything Chinese. There were a lot of rules for Mama.
I remember one day she was supposed to mow the lawn, but didn't. When Dad got home she was asleep on the kitchen floor. I had cleaned up the spills and put the empties under the sink, but I couldn't get her to wake up, to wash her face, to sit in a chair. I was probably six or seven. He twisted her arm up behind her back until she cried and pushed her out to the shed. She mowed the lawn one-handed, rocking the mower from side to side to turn it around at the end of each row. Her arm was in a sling for four days.
Oh, for a while we sometimes went out for Chinese food, but only the same way that we sometimes went out for steak or spaghetti. When we got to go out at all. There was a little place with chrome and Arborite tables in a strip mall on Macleod Trail that served "Chinese and Canadian Cuisine," the menu neatly segregated: egg rolls and chow mein on the left, burgers and club sandwiches on the right. I could always tell if Teresa was trying to suck up to Dad by which side she ordered from.
Dad always had the roast beef sandwich au jus. I can still see him turning his head sideways to bite into the gristly folds of meat, into the darkened bun dripping with what he always called "the awe juice." Mama usually had coffee and rice. Plain white rice. It wasn't licenced, the Chinese food place. I was often the only one who ventured into the mysterious realms of chop suey and sweet and sour pork, or chicken balls in their sticky scarlet goo.
For a while.
But suppose he is still alive?
I've mentioned the opera-in-progress to a handful of my music acquaintances, but they just smile the way you smile at a five-year-old who says he's going to be a fireman. The smiles are kind, but I see it all in their eyes. Waste of time and talent. No chance of it ever getting produced. Who besides Wagner writes their own libretto anyhow? Plus I think they've had me a little pigeonholed since last year when the CBC included Infernal Variations (String Trio), by Jason Lavoie on a CD of works by regional Asian-Canadian composers.
I'm Jason Lavoie, in case that wasn't clear. La-voy, by the way, not La-vwa. Dad was always very insistent about that, and by now the habit is worked in too deep to get rid of, even though I get grief about it from people like Bill Bonenfant, the cellist from St. Albert who played on the recording. But that's how it plays when you've been assimilated anglophones for multiple generations. Linguistic fidelity is fine for the folks in St. Albert, or in the towns south of the rail line in Saskatchewan, but here in Calgary it's just considered snooty.
Like Bill is such a traditional franco name.
I have mixed feelings about even being on that disc. I hate playing the Asian card. I just want to be seen as a composer, not as some exotic sub-type. But hey, would you turn down a chance to be recorded?
It's the part after he gets to China that's troublesome, of course, especially since he probably spends about three-quarters of the opera there. There were only a few early letters, and no-one heard from him again once they stopped, so I pretty much have to make it all up. I have to base it on my general sense of him and on what I know about China, which is tricky, since he left when I was five and I know virtually nothing about China. So I'm mostly working on the music at this point.
I'm sitting at my keyboard — a Korg M1 I bought used about a year ago — trying to construct a quasi-heroic melody in the tenor range. I see Uncle Larry as a tenor, struggling for reform in the middle of a chorus of baritone bureaucrats. I have the headphones on to avoid disturbing Louisa, so I don't hear her come in to bring me a coffee. She's just suddenly there, reaching around me toward the side table where my manuscript paper is, and I twitch with surprise.
"Sorry," she says. "Didn't mean to startle you."
She sets the coffee down on a coaster and places a settling hand on my shoulder. She leans forward and peers at the manuscript. Across the top staff of a six-stave line are three bars of melody and about eight bars of eraser smudges. The other staves — intended for a three-part men's chorus of bureaucrats and a piano score that I won't orchestrate until later — are blank. At this point I have no idea who the bureaucrats are, or why they're there, or what they have to say, or even if they're historically accurate. I just like the image.
"What do you think of this?" I ask. I turn on the little amplifier that connects the Korg to the bookshelf speakers and play her the three bars of melody, half-singing along to illustrate that it's a vocal line. It doesn't seem like much for two hours' work.
"Hmmm," she says. She touches a knuckle to her lower lip. She's not being evasive. She has a reasonable sense of modern music, especially after living with me for — Jesus, is it really more than four years now? — and she'll give me a real opinion. It's probably just too small a sample to get much of a grip on.
"You have to imagine it kind of rising up above this chorus of bureaucrats," I say, making a rising motion with my hand, fingers curled upward as if in struggle.
"Oka-a-ay," she says, as if letting that notion sink in. "And what will the chorus sound like?"
I shake my head. "No idea."
I put my arm around her hips. She kisses the top of my head.
I remember Mama tapping the coffee scoop against the inside of the tin, to get it level before tipping it into the paper cone. I remember her hair, dead black in the living room sun, as she picked out tunes on the piano with one hand. Old MacDonald. Twinkle twinkle. Canadian tunes, they might have said, at the restaurant with the chrome tables. I remember moisture in the fold at the corner of her eye.
She didn't drink every day, at least not then. Then it was only on the weekend, and sometimes not even until the afternoon. But it was enough, especially on the odd occasion when it spilled into public view. Staggering down the front walk to the car. Overbalancing while reaching for the morning Albertan and tumbling down the front steps.
It was plenty.
Mama sometimes said I had some special connection with Uncle Larry, but that she never understood what it was. I wonder now how much of that was bullshit.
The not understanding, I mean.
I remember a day in Banff. It's hard to say how much is actual memory and how much is based on Mama's whispered retellings, but it seems remarkably clear to me. It was one of the last times — maybe the last time — that anyone from Mama's side joined an outing with Uncle Mark's family. I stuck close to Uncle Larry the whole time. It wasn't very long before he left for China. I must have been around four.
We were walking down Banff Avenue on our way to some lunch place after a soak in the hot pool. My hair still smelled like sulphur. It was fun once I was in — the delicious contrast between the hot-spring water and the chill of the outdoor air, the strangeness of swimming surrounded by snow — but at first I was scared to wade through the little curtain of clear plastic strips between the change room and the pool. Uncle Mark yelled at me for holding everyone up, and called me something bad. Mama seemed about to say something, but stopped. Dad didn't even start. Uncle Larry took my hand and guided me through, holding the strips aside as I passed.
On Banff Avenue there were funny signs in some of the store windows. I was too young to know what they were, or probably even to notice them, but my cousin Danny must have been old enough to realize that they were Asian characters of some kind. He would have been about six.
"Hey Jason," he said, with a twisted little smirk. "What does that say?" And then he laughed, looking up at his Dad. Auntie Jill shushed him, but Uncle Mark laughed a little too.
Two stores later there was another sign, and Danny said: "Hey Jason, what does that one say?" Same smirk, cranked up a notch.
"Danny, shush," Auntie Jill said, scowling down at him.
"Leave the kid alone," Uncle Mark said. "It's a joke, for Christ's sake."
He was talking to Auntie Jill.
I remember feeling small and prickly, knowing that Danny was somehow beating me at a game I didn't get. I took Uncle Larry's hand.
"It's Japanese, not Chinese," Uncle Larry said. "Japanese tourists love the mountains."
Uncle Mark grunted something nasty.
"Some of the characters are the same as in Chinese, though," Uncle Larry went on. He didn't know Uncle Mark very well. "The Japanese borrowed them from us."
"Well they should give 'em back," Uncle Mark said with a snort. "Get some new ones people can actually read." And he gave Uncle Larry a smile that I knew was mean, and was meant to be mean.
After that I got whiny about walking, and Uncle Larry put me on his shoulders. Then Mama spotted the restaurant a couple blocks ahead, and pointed it out. Then Danny saw another sign.
"Hey Jason," he said. By now he was practically dancing with delight at his own wit, in the glow of his father's endorsement. "What does that one say?"
Uncle Larry turned his face up toward mine and whispered something. I missed it. He whispered it again.
"Fur coats," I said.
Danny's dance-step slowed a little. Half a block later he asked his question again, and again there was a whisper from Uncle Larry.
"Stone carvings," I said.
And after that there were no more questions.
Danny started picking on his sister instead. Auntie Jill shushed him, and this time Uncle Mark shushed him too. He was sullen right through lunch. Uncle Larry sat across from me and smiled.
I had a hamburger and french fries.CHAPTER 2
I take the LRT in to work for about quarter to six, since it's my turn to open. The first thing I always do is put on the music. Bach again today. We're supposed to play this corporate mix of old jazz and country pop, but especially during the quiet times of the day I play what I like, and at least once or twice a week that means Bach. I managed to get in all of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms last Thursday during the lull between the stroller brigade and the lunch crowd, since I'm on a bit of a Stravinsky kick at the moment, but that was unusual. Mostly I try to hit that narrow band where my own tastes overlap with what the customers will tolerate without scowling.
This morning it's the Motets, BWV 225-230. I take the CD from my backpack, load it into the sound system and fire up the last one, Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, which I particularly like. There's something soothing about Bach's mathematically precise control over interacting voices. Webern has some of that same level of control, but I'd never get away with playing him here.
Humming along with occasional bits of the soprano line I unlock the cash registers and get the steam building in the espresso machines. I cut the binding from the stack of today's Heralds and Globes and square them up in the wire rack near the door. At about ten to six I start coffee brewing in three of the drip machines — one dark, one mild, one decaf — so it'll be ready when the customers start coming in, and I chalk the names of the blends on the board on the wall. I wipe down the counters and the little round tables and brush any lingering pastry crumbs from the armchairs.
Just as the CD starts over, with Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, the first of my counter staff, the geology student, turns up, and I let him in. I've got him here early today because he has afternoon classes on Wednesdays. The next one, who sings in an alt-metal band, is in at seven because she has a show tonight and can't do the afternoon, and the single dad has the afternoon shift because that's when his mom can take over looking after his kid.
Scheduling is actually something that the manager is supposed to do rather than the assistant (me), but he finds it overwhelming and usually screws it up. I offered to do it the day after the single dad's ten-month old had to spend half a shift behind the counter in her stroller, and I've been doing it ever since. Thank Christ she's a good sleeper.
At six I unlock the outside door. There's already a small line-up of commuters waiting, a couple with their own insulated mugs. I work the register and draw the drip coffee while the geology student looks after the espresso drinks.
When the alt-metal singer comes in at seven she takes over for me behind the counter. I sit at the computer in the closet-sized office to update the inventory and sales stats and to pick up the latest marketing directions from head office in Vancouver. We're adding whole grain bagels to the menu next quarter. There's a PDF diagram showing how to rearrange the cooler to make space for them.
"Jason," I remember Mama snapping, "I said that's enough goddamn jam!" I was probably six or seven. She grabbed the jar, and my table knife, still half inside, flipped up out of my hand and hit the wall behind me, leaving a small strawberry gouge. As the knife clattered to the kitchen floor she stood staring at this new burden — the cleaning, the patching, the explaining — her face quivering between anger and disbelief. Then the quivering stopped, draining away, it seemed, into the linoleum, and she fell limply back into her chair. She set the jam jar down like a drink, beside the drink that was already there.
I picked my moment, gambling that she was too stunned to react. "When I'm grown up," I said, "I'm going to buy a jar of jam and eat the whole thing with a spoon."
"You do that," she said flatly, her hand sliding from the jar to the glass.
At ten I slide back the curtain of narrow Plexiglas panels that separates the coffee bar from the warehouse-sized bookstore. I actually started out in the bookstore, but it turned out that the money was marginally better behind the coffee counter. It's run by a separate chain.
If you're a twentysomething composer in Calgary without a university degree, you don't pay the bills with your art. Having either soured on or failed at warehouse work, telemarketing and door-to-door vinyl siding sales, these days I pour coffee.
Oh, all right, I'm making it more bleak than it is. I get an additional seventy cents an hour to help manage six other coffee-pourers too.
I was assistant conductor of a small church choir for a while, but the hours were short, the pay was crap, I got all of the shit jobs (like doing drills with the four enthusiastic but worse-than-average tenors — two of whom were really squeezed up baritones — to try to get them to sound less like gut-shot ducks and more like, say tenors), and I hated getting up early on Sundays. Plus there was the whole not-believing-in-God thing. But at least it was a music job, and better than teaching piano lessons, which I lasted at for six weeks before I realized that making eight-year-olds cry in humiliation wasn't effective pedagogy.
The coffee thing pays better, though. And when I do music, it's mine.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "An Idea About My Dead Uncle"
Copyright © 2019 K.R. Wilson and Guernica Editions Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Guernica Editions.
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