No, this is not a classical-music review. It's not classical, it's not music, it's not classical music, and it's not even classic. It's a short story I wrote some years ago that's been kicking around my hard drive ever since and offers proof positive why I should never write fiction. If it's not to your liking, come back later.
"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting."
Mr. Steven Meade awoke with a start, blurry-eyed as usual and angry at getting up. He was always angry mornings--angry at getting out of bed, angry at going to work, angry at facing the world another day. He wasn't lazy; he knew that. He was just...angry. As usual.
But something was different today. Something he felt. Something curious and oddly disturbing. Intuition? He couldn't tell; he just knew. He twisted restlessly for a minute; then he opened his eyes.
It was impossible. He closed his eyes. Opened them again. The room was still there. The old room; the unmistakable room.
Not his room.
No. This couldn't be, he thought. He was still dreaming. My imagination. Yes, a dream. It would be all right in a second.
He felt dizzy. The room swirled around him. A dream, but not a dream. The room was there. His eyes began to focus. He could see. He reached a shaky hand to feel his covers, his bedstead, his other hand. They were real. But they couldn't be. This wasn't possible.
Close your eyes, he thought. This will be over in a moment. Pull the covers up and close your eyes and go back to sleep. To sleep perchance to dream. That was it. Just sleep. But he knew he could never sleep, not now, maybe not ever. He was trembling, and his eyes were fixed on a spot on the ceiling, a tiny brown scuff, where as a child he had bounced a ball too high. Never play with your toys in the house, his mother had told him. Won't you ever listen? Wouldn't he? No, it wasn't possible.
He hadn't been in this room in over thirty years. He hadn't been in this bed in longer than that! He glanced overhead at the decals on the headboard to confirm the worst. There were the sailboats and blue ocean waves he had picked out as a child; and here was the light-blue bed he had slept in until the fifth grade, when he had graduated to a real, adult's dark-wood frame. But he couldn't be here now. This thing couldn't be happening to him.
Still shaking, he took the next risk: He looked down at his hands. Small. A child's hands. Not the hands of a forty-six- year-old man; not the hands he had come to know; the hands on his office computer day after day; the hands he watched on knives and forks and spoons; the hands that caressed his wife, that hugged his son, that opened his doors, that gripped his briefcase, that....
He wasn't here. He couldn't be here. He knew it.
But he was.
Think. Think, he told himself. What were the rational explanations? Things had substance, feel, touch. This could still be a dream. Or? Or, the next possibility was the most terrifying of all. A possibility he dared not consider, but must. His life had been a dream.
No, never. Stupid. Impossible. Some forty-odd years a dream! His wife, his son, his friends, his job, his house--a dream? Never. But his speculations seemed ever more feasible to him in light of his present situation.
Calm down, he thought. This will end soon. It will all be over. But the tremors in his hands and feet would not stop that easily. Proof. He needed more proof.
The mirror. Quivering as he was, he wondered if he could make it as far as from his bed to the small, oval mirror on his bureau drawer. And what new dread would he find there? Who would look back at him across that space of a few feet and so many years?
He staggered across the room and looked, and the horror was complete. A small, round, eight-year-old face. The face of crumpled, monochrome photographs. The face he had laughed at in old albums. His face. His now face. The one that wouldn't go away no matter how many times he said no to it out loud.
But the horror was not over. He knew then, with the next sound, that the horror would never be over.
"Stevie?" he heard. "Stevie, what's all that noise? Are you getting up with your radio on again? You know your father is trying to sleep. Steven, will you answer me?"
How do you answer someone who has been dead for a decade? What do you say to a second chance at eternity? And if you do answer, what voice will come out of that stranger's throat you now called your own?
He did the only thing he could do. "Nothing, ...mom."
"Well, keep it down. Are you getting up for school? It's half past seven, you know. Steven?"
The words almost took his breath away. The high-pitched child's voice that could not have been his, yet was.
He knew this would pass. He had to collect himself. Time would take care of everything. Time heals all.... But what about now? What do I do now?
He looked around the room. Everything so familiar, so much his own, like his voice, yet so far away. The double bed with the headboard decals. The Hopalong Cassidy curtains, the ones he had had to have, hanging two inches from the floor, shrunk from too many of his mother's fastidious washings. The closet door with its tarnished brass handle, dented from a mis-swung bat some thirty-eight years ago. No, last summer. No, thirty-eight years ago.
The four-drawer bureau on the side wall. Would it still hold his treasures in the bottom drawer: The dirty, yellowing dice in the beat-up tin box his uncle had brought back from the War? The Captain Midnight Secret Decoder Ring? The genuine Chinese fortune-telling sticks with their odd, faintly exotic, musty odor of Chinatown? They were all there, safe and fast.
Then, from the corner of his eye he noticed his old Electro-Voice radio, (tubes; he remembered tubes) sitting on the night stand, tuned, he was sure, to whatever station, he forgot now, carried "Big John and Sparky" every Saturday morning. So long forgotten; so quickly remembered. The Teddy Bears' Picnic and "no school today." KFGO. 680 on the dial. Not forgotten; a lifetime of memories, on tap, flooding back. Touch the right buttons, he thought, and it's all there. It's always been there.
But what now? What do I do now?
He had to have a plan, a set of alternatives. There were always alternatives. He could stay in bed, pretending to be sick. But he knew his mom; she would make him stay there all day. And, besides, if his dad was still in bed at 7:30, he must have just gotten off graveyard, the midnight shift, and would be sleeping until mid afternoon; meaning there could be no noise in the house most of the day. The idea of lying awake in his bed for the next eight hours, thinking and seething and worrying, was too much for him; he heard a barely perceptible "huh-ah" escape his stranger's lips. No, something else. Alternatives.
His real life, he thought. He had to reenter his old, his real life. He had to reawaken tomorrow in his real room, in his real home, with his real family; not here, not with these... impostors. He would drive out to his house--his own house--and recapture his past. But how? He was eight now; he couldn't drive. And what of his house? It was built only ten years ago. There would be nothing there but vacant lots and rolling hills. OK, he would cross those hills when he came to them. This afternoon he would talk his father into driving him to the country, and they would wind up near where his real house should be, and then.... And then what? He didn't know, but he had to see. He had to find out.
In the meantime, there was school. That might be the place to start. What about other kids, his friends? He wondered if any of them had been grown up, too? How many children harbored the same secrets he did, secrets too dark even to whisper for fear of ridicule and shame? He would find out.
So, Steven did the only thing he could do. He reached into the second bureau drawer and (yes, they were there) removed a set of underwear and socks; went to his closet and unhooked his jeans from a row of nails that he remembered he and his father putting up so long ago; changed out of his pajamas (pajamas--he hadn't worn pajamas in...); put on a shirt and shoes (so small, so small); and steeled himself for the day.
He opened the bedroom door.
His mom would be in the kitchen, making toast and pouring milk over his cereal. Dependable, predictable mom. Why, he was still shaking. How very curious, he thought, for his hands to be visibly trembling while his legs were like lead stumps.
"Are you finally up, Stevie?" his mother said as he entered the kitchen. She hadn't looked around at him. She was bending over the breakfast table, a sugar bowl and spoon in hand. Who would he see when she turned around? Who would she see! He knew, then, he couldn't do it, couldn't face this all-too-real nightmare in this all-too-real world, and he tried to turn away; but that old, accustomed voice ("Steven!") with its tone of resolute control jerked him forward, and he faced his mom for the first time in a long, long while.
She was beautiful.
He had never remembered her as beautiful. When he was young, she had always just been mom. Then they both got older, and she was just...old. But she was his mother, then and now; that was the first thing he was sure of today.
"What on earth are you acting so peculiar for this morning?" she demanded. "Are you feeling all right? Let me get your temperature." And before he could respond, she had her hand on his forehead. "Well, you feel fine," she was saying.
Fine. Fine! he thought. Mom, none of us are fine. None of this is fine. We're not real. We're not here! You're dead, and I'm miles away and married, and....
"Now sit down and eat, or you'll be late for school." And she turned toward the laundry room, leaving him there alone with his bowl of Sugar Pops, and his brand-new, old hands and arms, and his thoughts.
School. School is where you learned things. How ironic, he mused. But maybe today he really would learn something, like who he was. And if not, there were the alternatives. Like driving to the new home site. Or, or.... Well, there were always alternatives, even if you couldn't think of them.
He left his breakfast half eaten and kissed his mom good- bye. Any other time, he thought, any other time he would have stayed with her a lifetime--so much to say, so much to explain-- but not today, not now. There was too much else to do, too much to see, too much to analyze and understand. He even considered going into his father's room and waking him up and kissing him good-bye. It had been so long. But there would be time for that. An odd thought: time for that. How could there be? All of this would end any moment now. Wasn't that one of the alternatives, that this would be over as quickly as it began? And yet, it was just a feeling, a feeling he couldn't pin down. He started out the door, almost forgetting his lunch pail on the kitchen counter.
"Steven, your lunch," he heard his mom say. He grabbed the pail and all but ran out of the house and through the front gate. Here he was on more accustomed ground. Here, on this clear May morning, everything about the neighborhood crystalized into sharp relief. Funny, he thought, how so much is stored in memory, how so much can be called back so quickly, so easily. Like all those TV antennas. There used to be TV antennas. Where had they gone? Underground? And old cars. New cars now, but looking so different. And yet, so common, so everyday they could almost be.... He was about to say real, but they weren't, he knew, and he tried to get the thought out of his head once and for all. But it was hard, so very hard.
He continued down the street until he could almost see his school. He would find the answers there; there where his teachers knew everything, and the world was still in order. Dickerson Elementary and his second grade teacher, Miss Carnapple. Dear old Miss Crab Apple, the children called her. She would know. He was sure.
But how would he talk to these people? He hadn't said more than two words to his mom this morning. What words did an eight- year-old use? They'd take him home and have his head examined if used his own, normal vocabulary; that's what would happen. He'd sound like one of those Whiz Kids he remembered from the old radio days, someone odd, someone weird and phoney. But wouldn't that prove something, too? Didn't he want to show the world that he was, in fact, different? Didn't he want to confirm his own, real identity for everyone to see, himself included? He wasn't sure. All these (what was the word?) choices were beginning to tire him. He was more confused than ever, and, worse, he felt the cold wash of panic starting to pour over him. Something had to happen, and happen fast.
He felt himself slipping away, dissolving into something else.
The school grounds were filling up with the same talking, laughing, yelling, running kids he knew so well. He mumbled "hi" to a few of them on occasion as he made his way across campus; strange, he thought, as he entered his classroom, how close they all were, and how distant. Certainly, the little blonde girl in the corner was worth more than a casual glance. He was in love with her. That was simple enough. He had been in love with her since the beginning of September, almost eight months, a school year, a lifetime. Would she hold the answers? He doubted it. After all, now that he considered it, he hadn't actually spoken to her in all those eight months. But he would. Today, he said to himself, he would. Maybe. Later, today.
But later was long in coming. Everything was longer now. Was it just school that made the minutes trail by so slowly, or was it his age, his youth? Why did people grow old so fast?
Why didn't they cherish the here and now the way they should? Why....
"Huh? What? Yes, ma'am," Steve replied. Miss Carnapple seemed a million miles away, but there was no mistaking her now, poised above his head, sharpened tongue at the fore.
"I asked you for the definition of dictator," she was saying.
He knew that. He knew the word. The class had been talking about that guy in Russia the day before. He was a dictator, Miss Carnapple had said. He knew that.
"Well?" she continued. "Are you going to say anything, or should I call on James?"
Yeah, sure, he thought, let James answer it. You always let James answer things. James the pet. James his best friend, but always competing. Just yesterday, James had gotten two points more than he did on the weekly arithmetic test. But he'd show him. He'd get even on this week's spelling quiz. This time....
"Huh?" He knew the word, that dictator word. He'd think of it. He just needed a minute to think. Why wouldn't anyone give him time to think! It wasn't right. It wasn't fair!
"It ain't fair," he heard himself screaming to a stunned audience of teacher and kids. "It just ain't fair!"
She sent him home.
The day had not gone well, not well at all. Things clouded over. He was lost and calling aloud forever with no response. Calling aloud to no one.
He was glad to be home. Dinner with his family was silent; the incident at school went unmentioned. As always, his father sat half buried in his nightly news, his mother quietly content with her own eternally unshared dreams. After dinner the TV. And then night.
He lay his head on his pillow and closed his eyes. He loved night best of all, he thought; his bed, his blankets, the comfort and shelter of dark.
Stevie Meade had a vague uneasiness as he drifted off into sleep. Something about that morning. Something about his life. But he wouldn't worry; it would pass. All things do.
About the Author
I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.
When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.
So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.
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